By Josh Swartzlander
WASHINGTON - Democrats may be sailing toward the Nov. 7 election with the political wind at their backs, but they’re struggling against the current because of a statehouse tool known as “gerrymandering.”
Recent polls show approval ratings for Congress in the teens and for President Bush no higher than 40 percent. But Democrats are expected to hold at most a slim majority of House seats after the election.
Why? Partly because, over the last half decade, Republican-controlled statehouses have redrawn congressional districts to maximize the number of House seats Republicans win, said Michael McDonald, assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. That’s gerrymandering.
About half as many House elections are competitive this year compared with 1994, when a major political shift cost Democrats 54 House seats in the middle of President Clinton’s first term, McDonald said.
“By all rights, Democrats should have the same number of seats in play as Republicans had in ’94,” he said. “Democrats are playing on a tilted playing field.”
Consider Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, said David Skaggs, a former Colorado congressman now with the Council for Excellence in Government.
Voters in those states are about half Democrat and half Republican, he said. But the four states send twice as many Republicans to Congress as they do Democrats. And, even in the current political climate, only about 10 of the states’ 65 House seats are competitive.
Other states, including New Jersey, Texas and California, face similar situations.
Experts disagree on whether gerrymandering undermines the U.S. political system.
The redistricting tool is at least 200 years old and “about as American as apple pie,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center.
The name came from a salamander-shaped district in Massachusetts, orchestrated by governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812.
“In our political system, the victors get the fruits of victory,” said Tom Edsall, a faculty member at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and a former political reporter at The Washington Post. One of those fruits, he said, is the ability to draw congressional-district lines that benefit the victors.
Thomas Mann, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said redistricting has played only a minor roll in the decline of competitive districts. Increased party-line voting and people choosing to live near others with similar ideologies have played a larger role, he said.
However, U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last 40 years - including one last summer upholding most of the pro-Republican congressional map in Texas - have emboldened state legislatures, giving them the power to redistrict whenever they want, said Norm Ornstein, an expert on U.S. politics and elections with the American Enterprise Institute.
One result: “firewalls” have been created around House seats that are supposed to be more responsive to public opinion, he said.
“If the framers were alive today, they’d be rolling in their graves,” Ornstein said. “Voters are supposed to choose their representatives. Representatives are not supposed to choose their voters.”
Enhanced mapping technologies, which allow for more precise slicing of state political pies, also have aided gerrymanderers, said Sam Hirsch, a Washington lawyer and redistricting expert.
If gerrymandering is a problem, what can be done about it?
Most experts agree the most likely solution is for state legislatures to cede the power to draw congressional maps to independent commissions. Twelve legislatures already have done so.
The Campaign Legal Center, the Council for Excellence in Government and the League of Women Voters released a joint report this week concluding independent commissions should draw district lines following several main standards: promoting competitiveness and partisan fairness, following the boundaries of political subdivisions and geographic features and adhering to all legal requirements.
Congress could pass legislation that would prohibit mid-decade redistricting, which would mitigate the effects of gerrymandering, McDonald said.
The problem, he said, is the success of districting reform hinges on rapidly shifting political breezes. The party in power tends to support the status quo, he said.
For example, Democrats in Ohio backed away from a districting-reform measure this year after realizing they’d gain more statehouse control in the upcoming election, he said.
The Voting Rights Act also complicates districting reform because the law says that, if possible, states should create districts with large groups of minority voters, McDonald said.
Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, suggested that states write districting-reform measures that wouldn’t kick in until as late as 2020 - to prove the reform is “not just a Trojan horse of partisan gain.”
Mann argued it’s too early to conclude current districting procedures are broken.
“These elections pose a test to our electoral system,” he said. “The electorate claims to be mad as hell. Does our electoral system allow the flexibility for that change?”