Win the Race, Draw the Lines
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Say the word "redistricting" or "reapportionment" and even some political junkies' eyes glaze over. But for most lawmakers, it's a subject that can get their "blood boiling, their hearts racing and their dander up," Texas Senator Jeff Wentworth says , because the redrawing of district lines could cost lawmakers their jobs and their parties power for the next 10 years.
The last time Texas went through the redistricting process in 2003, the Texas Legislature became such a laughingstock that Jay Leno made jokes about it on TV. At the time, 51 Democratic state lawmakers fled to neighboring Oklahoma to deprive the Legislature of a quorum, a move that succeeded in killing a GOP-backed redistricting bill. Later that same year, Texas approved a controversial mid-decade plan engineered by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Texas Republicans that ultimately gave the GOP six more seats in Congress.
Wentworth, a Republican from San Antonio, last year once again introduced legislation that would take congressional redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and hand it over to an independent panel made up of citizens, not politicians. And once again the measure failed.
As Census forms begin arriving in Americans' mailboxes and with elections looming, the political parties have at least $93 million to spend in hopes of winning control of key statehouses and governorships. Those wins would give them the upper hand when new lines are drawn for congressional and statehouse boundaries in 2011, based on the new population counts, and theoretically make it easier for their members to grab those seats.
The U.S. Constitution requires all local, state and federal legislative districts to be redrawn after a census is taken to make the districts roughly equal in population, guaranteeing that each person is equally represented in legislative bodies, explains Tim Storey, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures . States with shrinking populations will lose seats and states with population surges will gain seats.
The Constitution leaves it up to the state to determine the method it wants to use for redistricting. In all but about a dozen states, state legislators and governors play key roles in the process, while commissions are in charge in the other states (see sidebar).
Democrats currently control 60 state legislative chambers, most of which will draw maps for 383 congressional and 5,074 state legislative seats, the party says. But 21 of those chambers in 17 states are within five seats of changing hands politically. These 17 states will shape 198 congressional districts during redistricting.
Democrats are using the earlier GOP actions in Texas as a rallying cry to get the party faithful to vote and give money. "If we don't shut down the GOP at the ballot box and stop them from redistricting themselves back into power, all our reforms will be dead in the water," outgoing New Mexican Governor Bill Richardson said in a recent fundraiser letter for the Democratic Governors Association , calling the 2003 Texas redistricting plan "underhanded" and "deceitful."
This time, Texas could be awarded three extra seats in Congress, more than any state (see map), because of its population boom. Democrats there hope to swing at least three seats in the state House in November and are also aiming at defeating incumbent Governor Rick Perry, thus depriving Republicans their lock on political control and its advantage in redrawing the political lines.
Other states that are expected to pick up a seat in Congress because of the Census and play a primary role in redrawing districts include Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina and Utah. Arizona and Washington are slated to pick up at least one new congressional seat, but these states use commissions to draw new lines.
"The results of the 2010 state legislative elections will define how key reforms and policies are decided for the next decade," Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee , wrote in a March 15 memo to activists that lays out the party's battle lines. The group is committing $20 million "to races that will have the greatest impact on reapportionment," referring to the process of determining how many congressional seats each state receives.
The Republican State Leadership Committee , which is dedicated to electing more Republicans at the state level, recently launched its $20 million REDMAP that stands for REDistricting Majority Project with the aim of winning state legislative seats. These seat would have a critical impact on congressional redistricting in 2011 . "To control the process — or at least have a seat at the table — winning, defending and increasing state legislative majorities must be a priority," its Web site says.
Democrats say they "have a real shot" of wrestling control from the GOP in the Michigan and Oklahoma senate chambers and the House chambers in Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, but the party admits it faces tight contests in these 10 chambers where Democrats currently hold majorities.
Both parties likewise are aggressively targeting the 37 governors' races this year. The Republican Governors' Association says "it jumpstarted the Republican comeback last year by winning governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia." The group announced it holds $31 million in cash-on-hand for the first quarter of 2010.
The Democratic Governors Association said it raised $23 million in 2009, the most in the organization's history, and will start the 2010 election cycle with nearly 12 times as much cash on hand as 2006, the last equivalent election cycle. DGA has $22 million cash-on-hand for the first quarter of 2010.
Storey of NCSL says that to many outsiders, this once-in-a-decade exercise is "all about gerrymandering," a term from the early 19 th century that referred to backers of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry who drew a state Senate plan to favor Gerry's party. A newspaper published a drawing of a creature with wings and a reptilian head and dubbed it the "gerrymander."
Wentworth of Texas has said bipartisan commissions would do a better job since "both political parties have proven conclusively that they are unable to resist the gerrymandering urge."
Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger likewise has backed redistricting reform. Voters rejected his 2005 proposal to transfer the authority to redraw both congressional and legislative district boundaries from the Legislature to a panel of retired judges, but voters in 2008 approved a ballot measure that created a new redistricting commission made up citizens to redraw the state legislative lines.
Schwarzenegger told CNN that redistricting is "not a sexy issue" but an important one, since out of California's 314 legislative and congressional elections in 2008, only one changed party hands. "So it just gives you an idea of how fixed the system is. And we laugh at Putin in Russia, how his system is, but the fact of the matter is, there's more turnover in the Kremlin than there's turnover here in California." He said a panel made of "ordinary citizens" to draw the lines would make the districts more competitive between Democrats and Republicans, and he hoped the idea would be replicated in other states.
And ordinary citizens are clamoring to be a part of the new process. More than 30,000 citizens have applied for a spot on California's new 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission. Five members will be Democrats, five Republican and four will be neither Democrats nor Republicans.
California's state Legislature will continue to redraw congressional lines and the stakes couldn't be higher. The state has the potential of losing a congressional seat for the first time since they gained statehood nearly 150 years ago.
Democrats will likely retain control of the California Legislature following this year's elections, but the race to replace Schwarzenegger, who is term-limited, is wide open. Attorney General and former governor Jerry Brown is the frontrunner for the Democrats while recent polls show former eBay CEO Meg Whitman leading state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner for the Republican nomination, which will be decided in the June 8 primary.
Ballot measures are circulating in California, however, that could change the process yet again. Separate measures are circulating that would essentially kill the new citizens' panel that works on state legislative boundaries and another would use the same system for congressional lines.