The Magic of Redistricting

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For the past year, legislators and governors in almost every state have been busy plotting the next decade of American politics. They've decided which party will control each state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. They've tried to ensure that incumbents won't face serious challenges. And they've decided how much influence America's ethnic minorities will have in politics. In the meantime, most of us voters haven't been paying attention.

The whole process is called redistricting. Every ten years, after the latest census figures come out, state governments redraw state and federal congressional districts to reflect the latest population changes. To most of us outside of government, it's a boring, confusing mess of endlessly twisting lines running through neighborhoods on a map. To politicians, it's a cage match to the death, complete with court hearings. The political and legal complexities of redistricting are vast, but most politicians have a simple goal — to protect their own seat and, if possible, try to guarantee their party a majority.

That sounds like enough for any politician to handle, but in Pennsylvania, the Republicans have raised the game to a whole new level. When a court threw out their carefully crafted redistricting plan, they decided to take the lemons and make lemonade. Not only would they make sure Republicans would expand their majority in the state's congressional delegation, they would find a way to hurt the two Democratic candidates for governor. In the end, it didn't pan out. But if it had, it would have been the masterstroke of this year's redistricting.

The race to be Pennsylvania's next governor is considered one of the key match-ups of the 2002 elections. State Attorney General Mike Fisher is the unopposed Republican choice. But he's considered an underdog to both Democratic candidates, Bob Casey Jr. and Ed Rendell. The two Democrats are better known. Casey is the son of a former governor and has the support of upstate blue-collar Democrats. He's pro-labor and pro-life. Ed Rendell is the pragmatic former Philadelphia mayor who appeals to the state's New Democrats and independents. These two candidates have been locked in a dead heat for months. And no matter who wins their May 21st primary, that nominee is predicted to have an advantage over Fisher. That was very nearly not the case.

When the Republicans, who hold the governor's office and a majority in both houses of the legislature, first started redrawing political districts, they weren't thinking about the governor's race. They were thinking about keeping their own jobs and about the state congressional delegation. Pennsylvania lost two congressional seats in the 2000 census, going from 21 to 19. The current delegation has eleven Republicans and ten Democrats. Legislators' final calculations predicted voters in the redrawn districts would send fourteen Republicans and five Democrats to Washington in 2003. How did they arrive at these figures? Using standard redistricting tools: they redrew the districts to make sure Republican incumbents had solid Republican majorities in their new areas, and in two cases, put two Democratic incumbents in one district to force them to fight it out.

Such viciousness is perfectly acceptable in redistricting. It's a complex art, and because the stakes are so high, there are often court battles over the districts. Anyone who has looked at redistricting maps knows that districts often curve and wind around each other, producing bizarre-looking chunks of land, all in an effort to shift voters back and forth. Computer technology has made it easier to draw even more complicated shapes.

But there are certain rules. Districts have often been used in the past to divide black or other minority communities among several districts, thereby guaranteeing a white majority in all the districts. Since the civil rights movement, Democrats have turned the tables, creating districts with large black or Hispanic populations to guarantee minority winners. The first Bush administration actually encouraged that practice because it concentrated Democratic voters in a few districts while creating more districts that were largely white and conservative. In a pair of key decisions in the 1990s, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not draw districts solely on race. BUT, drawing those districts based on politics was fine. If, in an effort to create a district with more Democrats or Republicans, a state created a district with many black or white voters, that was constitutional.

But let's get back to Pennsylvania. When Republicans were drawing districts there, they committed another constitutional no-no. In April, a federal court struck down the redistricting plan because, in their efforts to tilt the scales toward Republicans, the legislators had created districts with different size populations. Some districts varied in size by nineteen people. Now, that may sound silly when districts have more than 600,000 people. But the principle of keeping districts as close as possible to each other in population is one of the most important in the Constitution. It goes back to equal representation. If 600,000 people are served by one congressman and 600,019 are served by another, the second group has less clout.

At first, Pennsylvania's GOP legislators thought the court was being nitpicky, but in a brilliant move, they decided to make the situation work for them. They drew up a new plan which shifted enough voters around to make the districts more equitable, without actually changing the odds that Republicans would win fourteen of the districts. And then the state senate inserted a provision moving primary elections from May 21st to July 16th. Republican leaders said it was to give voters time to adjust to the new boundaries. Privately they admitted they were pushing the date back to hurt the two Democrats running for governor. Given a July primary, Rendell and Casey would have had two more months to fight each other, and would have needed another ten million dollars in campaign contributions. Meanwhile, Fisher could have leaned back, relaxed and watched the fight.

Casey and Rendell were so horrified by this prospect that they actually teamed up to ask the federal court to intervene. And on April 23rd, the court did just that, ruling that until it approved the new plan, the primaries should be held on May 21st under the old plan. Moving the primary, the court determined, would have caused too much mayhem. Rendell and Casey breathed a collective sigh of relief and went back to fighting each other. Republicans didn't put up much of a fuss, because they were still pretty sure they would score a big win in the congressional races. And they comforted themselves with the knowledge that if the court had not intervened, they would have scored a major coup.