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Excerpt: The Great Election Grab

When does gerrymandering become a threat to democracy?

December 2003 — With his West Texas twang, loping swagger, and ever-present cowboy boots, Charlie Stenholm doesn't much look like or sound like anybody's idea of a victim. Since 1979, he has been the congressman for a sprawling district west of Dallas, and his votes have reflected the conservative values of the cattle, cotton, and oil country back home. He opposes abortion, fights for balanced budgets, and voted for the impeachment of President Clinton. His web site features photographs of him carrying or firing guns. Through it all, though, Stenholm has remained a member of the Democratic Party, and for that offense he appears likely to lose his job after the next election.

Stenholm was a principal target in one of the more bizarre political dramas of recent years — the Texas redistricting struggle of 2003. Following the 2000 census, all states were obligated to redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts in line with the new population figures. In 2001, that process produced a standoff in Texas, with the Republican State Senate and the Democratic State House of Representatives unable to reach an agreement. As a result, a panel of federal judges formulated a compromise plan, which more or less replicated the current partisan balance in the state's congressional delegation: seventeen Democrats and thirteen Republicans. Then, in the 2002 elections, Republicans took control of the state house, and Tom DeLay, the Houston-area congressman who serves as House Majority Leader in Washington, decided to reopen the redistricting question. DeLay said that the current makeup of the congressional delegation did not reflect the state's true political orientation, so he set out to insure that it did.

"This was a fundamental change in the rules of the game," Heather Gerken, a professor at Harvard Law School, said. "The rules were, Fight it out once a decade but then let it lie for ten years. The norm was very useful, because they couldn't afford to fight this much about redistricting. Given the opportunity, that is all they will do, because it's their survival at stake. DeLay's tactic was so shocking because it got rid of this old, informal agreement." But Texas law contained no explicit prohibition on mid-decade redistricting, so the leadership of the state government, now unified in Republican hands, tried during the summer of 2003 to push through a new plan. Democrats attempted novel forms of resistance. In May, fifty-one House members fled to Oklahoma, to deprive the new leadership of a quorum; in July, a dozen senators decamped to New Mexico, for the same purpose. But defections and the passage of time weakened Democratic resolve, and, on October 13th, the plan sponsored by DeLay was passed.

Running in the New 19th (Launch Maps)

"They did everything they could to bust up my political base," Stenholm told me. "They drew my farm and where I grew up into the Amarillo district, and they drew Abilene, where I live now, into the Lubbock district." As a result, Stenholm will be forced to run in one of these districts if he wants to remain in the House. The new map creates similar problems for half a dozen other incumbent Texas Democrats, so the reapportionment may add as many as seven new Republicans to the G.O.P. majority in the House of Representatives and shift the state's delegation to 22-10 in favor of the Republicans. "Politics is a contact sport," Stenholm said. "I've been in this business twenty-five years. I will play the hand I was dealt."

In Texas and elsewhere, redistricting has transformed American politics. The framers of the Constitution created the House of Representatives to be the branch of government most responsive to changes in the public mood, but gerrymandered districts mean that most of the four hundred and thirty-five members of Congress never face seriously contested general elections. In 2002, eighty-one incumbents ran unopposed by a major party candidate. "There are now about four hundred safe seats in Congress," Richard Pildes, a professor of law at New York University, said. "The level of competitiveness has plummeted to the point where it is hard to describe the House as involving competitive elections at all these days." The House isn't just ossified; it's polarized, too. Members of the House now effectively answer only to primary voters, who represent the extreme partisan edge of both parties. As a result, collaboration and compromise between the parties have almost disappeared. The Republican advantage in the House is modest — just two hundred and twenty-nine seats to two hundred and six — but gerrymandering has made the lead close to insurmountable for the foreseeable future.

There is, it appears, just one chance to change the cycle. On December 10th, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could alter the nature of redistricting — and, with it, modern American electoral politics. The court has long held that legislators may not discriminate on the basis of race in redistricting, but the question now before the court is whether, or to what extent, they may consider politics in defining congressional boundaries. "There is a sense of embarrassment about what has happened in American politics," Samuel Issacharoff, a professor at Columbia Law School, said. "The rules of decorum have fallen apart. Voters no longer choose members of the House; the people who draw the lines do. The court seems to think that something has to be done." The case could well become the court's most important foray into the political process since Bush v. Gore. As Ronald Klain, a Democratic lawyer in election-law cases, puts it, "At stake in this case is control of Congress — nothing more, nothing less."

The off-cycle timing of the Texas redistricting fight, as well as the farcical drama of the fleeing Democratic legislators, made the saga look like a colorful aberration. But the results of that altercation merely replicated what happened, after the 2000 census, in several other states where Republicans controlled the governorship and the legislature. Even in states where voters were evenly divided, the Republicans used their advantage in the state capitals to transform their congressional delegations. In Florida, the paradigmatically deadlocked state, the new district lines sent eighteen Republicans and seven Democrats to the House. In the Gore state of Michigan, which lost a seat in redistricting, the delegation went from 9-7 in favor of the Democrats to 9-6 in favor of the Republicans — even though Democratic congressional candidates received thirty-five thousand more votes than their Republican opponents in 2002. (The Michigan plan was approved on September 11, 2001, so it received little publicity.) Pennsylvania, which also went to Gore, had one of the most ruthless Republican gerrymanders, and it is the one being challenged before the Supreme Court.

After 2000, Pennsylvania lost two seats in Congress, and its legislature had to establish new district lines. Republican legislative leaders there engaged in no subterfuge; they candidly admitted that they intended to draw the lines to favor their party as much as possible. In the midst of the battle over the Pennsylvania plan, DeLay and Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House, sent a letter to the Pennsylvania legislators, saying, "We wish to encourage you in these efforts, as they play a crucial role in maintaining a Republican majority in the United States House of Representatives." The Republicans in Harrisburg used venerable techniques in redistricting, like "packing," "cracking," and "kidnapping." Packing concentrates one group's voters in the fewest possible districts, so they cannot influence the outcome of races in others; cracking divides a group's voters into other districts, where they will be ineffective minorities; and kidnapping places two incumbents from the same party in the same district.

Frank Mascara was kidnapped. A Democrat first elected to Congress in 1994, Mascara represented a district in the rugged industrial country south of Pittsburgh. "My district had been more or less the same for about a hundred years," Mascara told me on the porch of his house in Charleroi, which overlooks a glass-making plant on the banks of the Monongahela River. The son of a steelworker and the first member of his family to go to college, Mascara worked his way through county politics until he won his seat in the House. "A lot of people couldn't believe that a congressman lived in a house like mine," he said, noting its aluminum siding and probable resale value of about thirty-five thousand dollars. "But that's the kind of guy I am," he said. "I go to church down the street. I represent the average person."

Next » | " The Republicans' meticulous line-drawing through Charleroi was designed to force Mascara into a primary battle with his fellow-Democrat John Murtha, which it did."

This article originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine on December 8, 2003 and appears here with permission from the author.





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