Census Draws a Fine Line Between Dems and the GOP

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This week, the U.S. Bureau of Census released a batch of statistics that demographers and social scientists find fascinating. According to the numbers from last yearís population count, about one in five Americans donít speak English at home, over 2 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, and the number of adults working out of the homes has grown by a third the past ten years.

Theyíre incredible statistics, but members of Congress — not to mention Democratic and Republican strategists — are much more interested in a totally different set of numbers gleaned from the 2000 census: Theyíre poring over the figures that will determine the shape of "the map."

The map, in this case, is what divides the U.S. into 435 congressional districts. Every ten years, using new census information, legislatures across the country redraw lines for their statesí congressional districts to accommodate shifts in population. What changes did the 2000 count turn up? The new numbers reveal a continuing shift of population from the Northeast to the South and West. For example, New York and Pennsylvania, both Democrat-friendly states, lost two congressional seats each. Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Mississippi are also losing one seat each. On the other hand, Republican-friendly states like Arizona, Texas, Florida and Georgia will each gain two congressional seats, while California, Nevada and Colorado will each gain one seat.

Only nine states have so far redrawn the congressional lines; the rest are still debating boundaries. The drawing phase is critical; the way state assemblies apportion the new maps could determine the makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives for the coming decade. Thatís because in most states, the party that controls the legislature and governorís seat also controls the map — and can draw the lines in ways that favor its candidates. "The stakes are very, very high," says one Democratic Party official.

The actual turnover potential in Congress is relatively small. "If you can design a safe seat for a member of your party, even if heís a rookie, heíll have all the perks and powers of the office behind him to be around for a long time," says Mark Rush a political scientist at Washington and Lee University. Incumbents are rarely voted out of office; the only way many of them ever leave is by retiring or dying. So if the congressional lines for a district are drawn in a way that concentrates more voters from one party, the incumbent from that party is practically guaranteed his seat for at least 10 years, or until the lines are redrawn after the next census.

No wonder state legislative races last November became so critically important for both parties. The deadlocked presidential election may have captured all the headlines, but the state assembly races were where "the real political battlefield in 2000" occurred, according to one Republican Party memo. Obscure candidates for state offices found themselves flush with millions of dollars from the Democratic and Republican parties. It was money well spent, both parties believed. "From a purely financial point of view," continues the GOP memo, "if the GOP loses this war, the money it will have to spend — perhaps vainly — in attempting to recoup its loses is staggering compared with what it needs to invest ... to win the 2000 state legislative races."

Republicans have particularly long memories about dark decades of the past when Democrats controlled most state governments as well as the pens that drew congressional maps. Over the last ten years, of course, the Republicans have leveled the playing field considerably. Before last Novemberís election, the Democrats controlled only 19 governorships while the GOP controlled 29. Of the 49 bicameral state legislatures, Democrats controlled 19, Republicans held 17, while 13 others were split. (Nebraska has a unicameral non-partisan legislature.)

The tens of millions of dollars that were pumped into state elections last fall, however, only managed to buy a draw for both parties. The party breakdown for governors remains the same: 19 for the Democrats and 29 for the Republicans. Republicans now control 17 legislatures, Democrats 16, and the parties split the remaining16.

Now the battle has shifted to state houses and courthouses, and neither party is wasting any time. The day after last Novemberís election both parties began assembling teams of lawyers and redistricting experts who fanned out across the country to help friendly legislators draw up their maps. The drawing phase, of course, is only the beginning: already, suits have been filed in ten states challenging new boundaries, and many more are expected. Redistricting is being called the "hidden war" — but its outcome couldnít be more important for both parties.