Drawing the Lines

November 25, 1990

A key series of races on Nov. 6 for state legislature that didn't make headlines is likely to have a big influence on national affairs in the 1990s.

One year after the Census, nearly all state legislatures will draw new congressional district lines; governors have the veto power. Creative mapmakers can maximize their own party's strength and minimize their opponent's. For example, in Florida in 1988, Republican candidates for Congress out-polled Democrats by 1.3 million votes to 1.2 million, but 10 Democrats and 9 Republicans won.

Those districts' lines were drawn in 1981 by a Democratic legislature and governor. This time Republicans hoped to have a Republican governor and control at least one chamber of the state legislature to make sure that Florida's new and bigger (by four members) congressional delegation had more compatible districts. But on Nov. 6, Lawton Chiles defeated GOP Gov. Bob Martinez and Democrats added to their legislative majorities.

The same thing happened in Texas, which will have three new members of Congress. Ann Richards defeated the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Clayton Williams, and Democrats strengthened control of the legislature.

Georgia and Virginia, which each gain a congressional seat because of population growth, have Democratic governors and legislative majorities. So do 17 states in all. In only three states are there Republican governors and majorities in both legislative chambers. The number of state legislatures totally in Democratic control went from 29 to 31. The number controlled by Republicans dropped from nine to five. The number of states with split legislatures rose from 11 to 13.

In states where one party controls part or all of the legislature and the other the governorship -- including large ones in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and California -- re-districting will be negotiated. Neither party will be devastated, presumably. Nonetheless, the Democrats, who already have a 100-vote edge over Republicans in the U.S. House of PTC Representatives, appear likely to add to that with imaginative mapmaking where they dominate.

But only if the federal courts let them. The Supreme Court ruled for the first time in 1986 that blatantly partisan redistricting can be challenged in court. If the Democrats overplay their strength in state capitals, they may find themselves overruled by what is now a predominantly Republican federal judiciary.

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