Map madness

May 10, 2004

VOTERS ARE PLAYING an increasingly minor role in choosing their congressional representatives.

Political manipulation of congressional district lines has become so brazen and so sophisticated, the outcome of contests between Democrats and Republicans is all but predetermined for the vast majority of the 435 House seats.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently observed that state legislators who draw these lines are "in the business of rigging elections."

Yet the high court effectively threw up its hands last month, declining to intrude in legislative mapmaking when the lines are gerrymandered for partisan advantage -- saying it had no standards to determine how much was too much.

If the court won't do it, voters will have to, by demanding through referendum or some other means the reform of a process that threatens to give them no voice in their own shrilly partisan and all-but-dysfunctional government.

Historically, congressional and state legislative lines have been redrawn every 10 years to reflect population changes recorded by the census. Many states have rules for legislative districts, requiring that they be compact, contiguous and reflective of communities of interest as well as home to an equal number of potential voters. But the court appears to have concluded that in congressional remapping, only the numbers matter. Except for attempts to discriminate against voters by race, anything goes.

It gave its blessing to a Republican-drawn plan in Pennsylvania that dealt with population losses by squeezing out two veteran Democrats, and boosted the GOP margin in the delegation from 11-10 to 12-7.

That's no worse than what happened in Maryland two years ago, when Democrats redrew congressional lines in a bizarre, community-splitting fashion in order to boost their ranks by picking up two House seats that had long been held by Republicans.

And last year, Texas Republicans set a new standard for raw abuse of redistricting power by setting aside an existing court-ordered plan and ramming through the legislature a second one so offensive that some Democrats fled the state to deny the GOP a quorum. Such a terrible precedent is all too likely to be repeated elsewhere unless a prohibition is adopted against remapping twice in a 10-year period.

The goal of partisan map-making is not only to gain control but to make districts so safe for incumbents that they are all but immune to challenge. Such manipulations have succeeded to the point where no more than 50 contests of 435 every two years are truly competitive, and incumbents rarely lose.

In fact, little Iowa had more hot House races last year -- four -- than California, New York or Texas, because Iowa's maps are drawn by bureaucrats according to tight standards developed three decades ago that seek to keep communities and county lines intact.

The Iowa plan may not work everywhere. But if the alternative is rubber-stamp elections and a so-called people's House where the people have no real voice, Iowa's approach looks mighty attractive.

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