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Excerpt: The Great Election Grab

When does gerrymandering become a threat to democracy?

With the Republicans in charge in Harrisburg, Mascara knew he would be little more than a spectator to the redistricting process. "I still thought my district would for the most part remain intact," he said. "That didn't occur." Mascara had met me at a McDonald's in Charleroi's ragged downtown, and then led me to his home on a quiet street called Lincoln Avenue, where we parked because he has no garage. From his porch, he pointed to our cars. "The cars are in the twelfth congressional district, and my house is in the eighteenth," he explained. "When they drew the new lines, they started in Allegheny County, which is north of here, and made, like, a finger out of that district, and the finger went down the middle of the street where I live. The line came down to my house and stopped." 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. Murtha defeated Mascara, ending his congressional career and reducing the Democratic presence in the House by one.

The Republicans carved up Pennsylvania into many strangely shaped districts, which won monikers like the "supine seahorse" and the "upside-down Chinese dragon." Such nicknames for gerrymandered districts go back to the origin of the term, which was coined as an epithet to mock Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1811 approved an election district that was said to resemble a salamander. Like most gerrymanders throughout history, the Republicans' creation in Pennsylvania produced the desired results. Even though a Democrat, Ed Rendell, won the governorship in 2002, Republicans in that election took control of twelve of the nineteen House seats.

Democrats accomplished less in the 2000 redistricting cycle only because they controlled fewer states and thus could do less to protect their interests. DeLay's mid-cycle reapportionment may be without precedent, but Democrats have their own inglorious history of gerrymandering. Before the Texas coup this year, the most notorious redistricting operation in recent years was the one run by Representative Philip Burton, following the 1980 census in California, which transformed the Democrats' advantage in House seats there from 22-21 to 27-18. In 2002, a Democratic plan in Maryland turned that delegation from being evenly divided to a 6-2 Democratic advantage, and Georgia Democrats gained two seats in the House even though in the same election voters rejected a Democratic governor and a Democratic United States senator. In California, where Democrats also controlled the process, they settled for protecting incumbents of both parties. There, in 2002, not one of fifty general-election House challengers won even forty percent of the total vote.

There is no doubt, though, that on balance the 2000 redistricting cycle amounted to a major victory for Republicans. Even though Al Gore and George W. Bush split the combined vote in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, Republican control of the process meant that, after redistricting, the G.O.P. now holds fifty-one of those states' seventy-seven House seats. "The important thing to realize was in 1991 the Republicans had control of line-drawing in a total of five congressional districts," one G.O.P. redistricting expert told me. "In 2001, it was almost a hundred seats. Both parties made the most of it."

The transformation of congressional redistricting began long before the 2000 census, and the crucial issue was race. In the early nineteen-sixties, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, transformed American politics by enforcing the principle of one man, one vote, and requiring that all legislative districts contain the same number of people. Before these decisions, which started with the famous case of Baker v. Carr, in 1962, Southern (and some Northern) states had designed districts so that black voters had no meaningful say in Congress. Later in the decade, the Voting Rights Act established the principle that not only did blacks have the right to vote but they had to be placed in districts where black candidates stood a good chance of winning. The act, which was one of Lyndon B. Johnson's most important civil-rights initiatives, led to the election of many more black members of Congress — and was a classic demonstration of the law of unintended consequences.

"When the civil-rights movement started, you had a lot of white Democrats in power in the South," Bobby Scott, a congressman from Virginia who was first elected in 1992, said. "And, when these white Democrats started redistricting, they wanted to keep African-American percentages at around thirty-five or forty percent. That was enough for the white Democrats to keep winning in these districts, but not enough to elect any black Democrats. The white Democrats called these 'influence' districts, where we could have a say in who won." But Republicans sensed an opportunity. "They came to us and said, We want these districts to be sixty percent black," Scott, who is African-American, said. "And blacks liked that idea, because it meant we elected some of our own for the first time. That's where the 'unholy alliance' came in."

The unholy alliance — between black Democrats and white Republicans — shaped redistricting during the eighties and nineties. Republicans recognized the value of concentrating black voters, who are reliable Democrats, in single districts, which are known in voting-rights parlance as "majority-minority." As Gerald Hebert, a Democratic redistricting operative and former Justice Department lawyer, puts it, "What you had was the Republicans who were in charge for every redistricting cycle at the Justice Department-'81, '91, '01. And there was a kind of thinking in the eighties and in the early nineties that if you could create a majority-minority district anywhere in the state, regardless of how it looked and what its impact was on surrounding districts, then you simply had to do it. What ended up happening was that they went out of their way to divide and conquer the Democrats." The real story of the Republican congressional landslide of 1994, many redistricting experts believe, is the disappearance of white Democratic congressmen, whose black constituents were largely absorbed into majority-minority districts.

It was a version of the unholy alliance which may doom Charlie Stenholm and his fellow Texas Democrats. All the congressmen who are likely to lose their jobs in the new DeLay plan are white. Many of their black constituents have been transferred to safe Democratic seats, where they can't harm Republicans. The unholy alliance has had the additional side effect, especially in the South, of making the Democrats the party of blacks and the Republicans the party of whites — which presents daunting long-term political problems for the Democratic Party. Many Democrats can't help but express a perverse admiration for the cleverness of the strategy. Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican redistricting operative who helped to construct the unholy alliance during the 1990 cycle, referred to the initiative as "Project Ratf***."

Next » | "The effects of partisan gerrymandering go well beyond the protection of incumbents and the guarantee of continued Republican control."

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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