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The left's sudden, frantic problem with gerrymandering

By Bruce Walker
web posted November 4, 2002

On November 5, 2002, mainstream pundits have fretted, Americans will cast meaningless ballots in most congressional elections. Republicans and Democrats have conspired to gerrymander as many congressional districts as possible into partisan bastions safe from conquest by the other major political party. Since the process of redistricting began in earnest a year ago, gerrymandering has suddenly, frantically become a problem for democracy in America.

How did America get to the point where only a few dozen House races are truly competitive? And how did Republicans become involved in the process of creating so many safe districts? The question can only be fairly considered with historical background.

Gerrymandering has dominated American federal politics for decades, but liberals did not find this troublesome at all. Liberal Democrats, in fact, gloated about it. When Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in 1980 so complete that Democrats lost twelve Senate seats, Republican candidates in races for the House of Representatives won a clear majority of the popular vote, but Democrat gerrymandering had been so effective that Democrats retained a whopping forty-two vote majority in the House of Representatives.

In 1980 a tertiary tier of elections, below presidential and below congressional, sealed the fate of the House of Representatives for the next decade. Democrats won the critical battle for state legislatures and, to a lesser extent, for state governors. When President Reagan took office, and when the 1980 redistricting process began, Democrats controlled outright twenty-eight of the forty-nine partisan state legislatures (Nebraska has a non-partisan and unicameral legislature); six state legislatures were split; and Republicans controlled only fifteen state legislatures, with most in small states like Idaho and Wyoming.

Democrat gerrymandering was so pervasive after the 1980 redistricting process that by 1990, the last election under those 1980 district boundaries, Democrat candidates for House races received only 54.1 per cent of the popular vote (among the two major political parties) but Democrats won a 61.6 per cent of the House races.

In that same 1990 election, Democrats increased their iron grip on state legislatures. When the redistricting process began in 1990, Democrats controlled outright twenty-nine state legislatures; eleven state legislatures were split; and Republicans controlled a pathetic six state legislatures. Again, Democrats used this power to effectively disenfranchise as many Republican voters as possible.

When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Democrats received a bare 52.8 per cent majority of the popular vote for House candidates but Democrats won a whopping 59.4 per cent of the House races, which was an even greater disparity between popular votes and seats won than under the old 1980 congressional districts of the 1990 election.

This pattern - Democrats winning a substantially greater percentage of House elections than Democrats received of the popular vote for House candidates, had become a staple of American political life by 1994. Then in 1994 Republicans finally got a break. Bill Clinton was so manifestly bad that the American people had revulsion far greater than the typical mid-term presidential party blahs. And Newt Gingrich nationalized congressional elections (and to a large extent, state elections).

As a direct result of these two factors, Republican candidates for House races in 1994 received 53.6 per cent of the popular vote - more than Democrats had won in 1990 or 1992 - giving them a slender majority. This 53.6 per cent, which was a greater percentage of the popular vote than Democrat candidates had received when Clinton was elected, translated into a rather anemic 52.9 per cent of the House races. But it was, finally, a Republican majority.

The most dramatic gain in the Newt Gingrich-led landslide of 1994, however, was not in the House of Representatives, the Senate or governors' races. The most dramatic gains were in state legislatures, where Republicans moved from desperate weakness to parity, a strength that Republicans over the next three election cycles. When it came time to reapportion congressional seats and redistrict congressional districts after the 2000 elections, Republicans controlled as many state legislatures as Democrats and more governorships than Democrats.

Moreover, this clout was greatest in large states, where Republicans held the governorship and both houses of the legislature (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Ohio) or the governor and one chamber of the legislature (Texas, Illinois and New York). This time around, for once, Republicans could not be gerrymandered into irrelevance.

Meanwhile, during the three intervening general elections, something remarkable was happening in House races. The percentage of votes cast for Republican and Democrat candidates for the House of Representatives nationally began to closely mirror the number of Republican and Democrat congressmen actually elected.

In 1996 Republican House candidates received 50.2 per cent of the popular vote for major party candidates, and Republicans elected 52.4 per cent of the House members. In 1998 Republican House candidates received 50.6 per cent of the popular vote, and Republicans elected 51.3 per cent of the House members. In 2000 Republican candidates received 50.2 per cent of the popular vote, and Republicans elected 51.0 per cent of the House members.

The deviations between votes for members of the House and election of members of the House, which had been equal to eight percentage points or more under the Democrats, was reduced in the last two elections to less than one percentage point. The House of Representatives began to resemble what the Founding Fathers intended: the popular will.

The narrow majority of Republicans and near majority of Democrats also made both political parties much more sensitive to what the people really wanted. No one felt that a single political party would be able to dominate the House of Representatives the way that Democrats had for forty-two consecutive years.

Democrats also began to see and to understand just how tough it is for a challenger to defeat an incumbent member of the majority party. After 1996, all Democrats needed to do was pick up another eleven seats. Six years later, Democrats have scarcely been able to budge that narrow Republican majority, and they will not do so in 2002.

Gerrymandering and incumbency are double-edged swords, as Democrats are learning. Perhaps only after the November 5, 2002, when Democrats find themselves facing 225 incumbent Republicans running in predominately Republican districts will Gephardt and his pals learn that fairness in elections actually matters.

If so, Minority Leader Gephardt in 2003, for example, might decide to support a constitutional amendment for term limits (the alternative is to have Republicans, as incumbent members of the majority party, win and win and win). Minority Leader Gephardt might introduce a bill that requires all legislative districts - federal, state and local - to be "compact, contiguous and with no partisan advantage."

Maybe not. Probably not. Democrats believe that they are entitled to power, and they are about to find out that this attitude is suicide.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a contributor to Citizens View, The Common Conservative, Conservative Truth and Port of Call.

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