10 November 2006

The trade-off in redistricting is between safety and maximizing the numbers

You can't do both.
Gerrymandering was supposed to cement Republican control of the House of Representatives, offering incumbents a wall of re-election protection even as public opinion turned sharply against them. Instead, the party's strategy of recrafting district boundaries may have backfired, contributing to the defeats of several lawmakers and the party's fall from power.

The reason: Republican leaders may have overreached and created so many Republican-leaning districts that they spread their core supporters too thinly. That left their incumbents vulnerable to the type of backlash from traditionally Republican-leaning independent voters that unfolded this week.

Redistricting, the traditionally once-a-decade process of redrawing of House districts to adjust to population trends, has always been a contentious procedure. But Republicans, under the leadership of Mr. DeLay, took the opportunity to use it as a reward or punishment to new heights in 2002.

In so doing, Republicans created two new vulnerabilities: the dangerous dilution of core voters and the nurturing of a sense of invulnerability that contributes to corruption and scandal.

The drive to maximize seats was seen by Republicans as a matter of survival. Democrats regained ground every cycle after the 1994 Republican takeover. By 2000, the Republican majority had shrunk to 221 seats from 231 in 1994. Democrats, aligned with the chamber's one independent, needed just six seats to retake control in 2002.

So Mr. DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert turned to their allies in the statehouses to redraw congressional district boundaries to erase Democratic seats and give Republicans new ones. "We wish to encourage you in these efforts, as they play a crucial role in maintaining a Republican majority," the two leaders wrote in a letter to Pennsylvania lawmakers.

There are three weapons to employ in redistricting. "Packing" involves concentrating a group of voters, such as African-Americans, in one district. "Cracking" means splitting up a group of voters to diminish their influence. "Pairing" forces two incumbents into the same district. Pennsylvania lawmakers used them all.


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