Incumbent protection racket

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Push a stone up a hill long enough, and sooner or later it might even stay put. That's how we feel watching the sudden spate of media and Democratic Party interest in the scandal known as "gerrymandering," or politically rigged redistricting.

This is one of our hobby horses going back 20 years, and it's nice finally to have some company. Much of this new-found outrage, to be sure, is because Republicans are now using their political muscle to carve out House district lines that hurt Democrats. "Democrats Unlikely To Retake House: Redistricting Is Biggest Obstacle," mourned a recent Washington Post story. We don't recall this making Page One when the losers were Republicans, but never mind. The Post is right this time around.

The GOP has discovered that designing uncompetitive House districts can inflate, or perhaps prolong, a majority. Democrats did this throughout the 1980s, most notably in California. Now Republicans are returning the favor in states where they dominate the government, especially in the South and West.

After the 2000 Census, Republicans mapped out Florida with the precision of a plastic surgeon. The state's voters divided 50-50 in the 2000 Presidential race, but the GOP gerrymander produced such lopsided House districts that Republicans hold 18 Florida seats and Democrats only seven. The politically mixed Tampa-Orlando area has 10 Republicans but only two Democrats, in part because the GOP packed minority voters into those two safe Democratic districts.

Democrats and the media are especially incensed by the GOP's current efforts to gerrymander Texas, and they have a point. The GOP is trying to redraw House seats for the second time this decade, when the tradition is only once after every Census. Angry Democrats in the legislature have now fled the state twice to prevent the quorum that Republicans need to push it through.

Of course, Republicans must be wondering why they didn't think of that when the Democrats were doing the same to them. Texas is among the most GOP states in America, with Republicans holding every state-wide elected office. Yet because of the residue of previous Democratic gerrymanders that still held sway in 2002, Democrats rule the Texas House delegation, 17-15. Democrats are literally, if extra-legally, fleeing for their political lives.

The liberal media reaction to this has been to bang their spoons on their high chairs against Tom DeLay and Karl Rove, as if Democratic operatives wouldn't behave precisely like these two Republicans. Allow us to suggest a more productive response: How about challenging the entire process of partisan gerrymanders? Modern redistricting is now so precise, using computer models and voter identification, that it is taking the politics out of House elections. Incumbents in both parties conspire to design seats so safe that the vast majority of House races are now uncompetitive.

As the nearby table shows, with the exception of the 1994 GOP landslide, incumbents are once again all but a sure thing. Worse, the percentage of incumbents winning with 60% of the vote or more is also increasing -- hitting 83% in 2002. No more than 50 (and usually fewer) of the 435 House elections are even up for grabs anymore, and this in the branch of government that the Founders designed to most closely reflect the will of the people. Whether this favors Republicans or Democrats at any one time, it's never good for democracy.

This strikes us a natural for the political reform crowd. If they ever tire of trying to stop water from flowing downhill -- aka, purging money from politics -- our liberal media mates could take up a cause that would actually make a difference. Independent commissions, rather than politicians, have produced much more competitive districts in Iowa and Washington, and they'd be worth promoting nationwide. The gerrymander is a bipartisan scandal, so we welcome all the reform help we can get.

-- The Wall Street Journal

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: