Redistricting ruling deals a blow to American democracy

July 05, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- When it comes to partisan gerrymandering, the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last week, two numbers are relevant. The first: five. That's how many of the 392 incumbent House members running in 2004 lost to non-incumbents. The second: zero. That's how much chance there is that the Supreme Court will stop this endless, insatiable and alarmingly successful effort to prevent voters from deciding elections.

American democracy is beginning to resemble a Western movie set: authentic-looking storefronts with nothing behind them. We continue to hold elections for Congress and state legislatures, but in the overwhelming majority of districts, the winner is determined long before Election Day.

The Texas plan at issue in this case was unusual in one respect. Reapportionments normally take place only once every decade - following the census. But Texas Republicans, after gaining control of the legislature in 2003, decided there was no need to wait till 2010. So they took the almost unheard-of step of redrawing the state's congressional districts in mid-decade.

The plan succeeded brilliantly - gaining the party six additional seats and a majority of the state's delegation in the 2004 election.

Last week, the Supreme Court said the new map violated the Voting Rights Act when it removed 100,000 Latinos from one district to keep a Republican incumbent in office. But it gave its blessing to the reapportionment, which a lower court described as "an abuse of power that, at its core, evinces a fundamental distrust of voters, serving the self-interest of the political parties at the expense of the public good."

The Supreme Court didn't quite endorse such abuses. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court, admitted that the Texas legislature acted "with the sole purpose of achieving a Republican congressional majority." But he and his colleagues concluded that it was beyond their poor brains to come up with "a standard for deciding how much partisan dominance is too much." So they decided, in effect, that nothing could be too much.

Supporters of the plan were not bashful about their goal, which required moving 8 million of the state's 22 million people into new districts. The operative idea is simple: If voters don't like your pitch, don't change your pitch - change your voters.

Not only did Republicans succeed in getting better results in 2004, but they also ensured better results for years to come. Republicans say the map is perfectly fair, because it yielded a delegation roughly reflective of the state's political breakdown: With 58 percent of the total statewide vote, the GOP got 66 percent of the seats.

But the fairness is only skin-deep. The state's own expert, testifying in court, admitted that even if Democrats got half of the total vote, they would probably win no more than 38 percent of the congressional races.

The Texas GOP insisted that the old map, which rigged things in favor of Democrats, was even less representative than the new one. But it's no solution to replace one grossly unfair partisan reapportionment with another. The winners change, but the losers - the people of Texas - remain the same.

Nor is it reasonable for the court to stand aside while politicians turn the central element of democracy into a phony ritual.

As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, if a state passed a law saying "all future apportionment shall be drawn so as most to burden Party X's right to fair and effective representation," the court would strike it down. Here, though, it upheld a remap everyone knows was designed to do exactly that. Worse, it said such schemes can be implemented not just once a decade, but anytime the people in power can ram them through.

The framers of the Constitution may have accepted gerrymandering as a necessary evil. But no one in those days could have dreamed how far it would be taken by unscrupulous partisans armed with modern technology intent on neutralizing the central element of American democracy. Thanks to the Supreme Court, they have only just begun.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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