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The Redistricting Wars | The Nation

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The Redistricting Wars

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Beyond controlling a historically exceptional number of state polities, the Republicans have also been aided in their plans by the advent of extraordinarily powerful redistricting software. In the decade-plus since the last round of redistricting following the 1990 Census, the technology of redistricting software has improved to the point where any organization can load sophisticated mapping programs onto their operatives' laptops, plug in demographic variables and generate devastatingly accurate redistricting maps designed to concentrate or diffuse party supporters in units tailor-made to benefit one party over another.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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"The fact that the software's really affordable means a lot of these groups are using it. It's about $5,000 a copy," says Howard Simkowitz, product manager for Maptitude for Redistricting, a high-selling software package produced by the Caliper Corporation. Ten years ago, explains Simkowitz, "it would have been probably ten times as much. The price is way down. We got into the redistricting market in a big way this time around. It's become a lot easier to build districts that are lopsided districts, because people can understand the data so much better. You're able to really manipulate the data quickly, to try different scenarios, to move the boundaries around and see what that means."

Parties can now work out the most effective ways either to ghettoize their opponents' votes into a small number of extremely safe seats, or dilute their votes by redrawing Congressional boundaries so as to break up voting blocs into several different districts thought to be populated by a majority from the other party. Indeed, the power of this software is mentioned in the US Supreme Court briefs as one more bit of evidence indicating that those who draw the Congressional lines now effectively control the contours of Congress.

While in theory the redistricting technology that has recently come online is party-neutral, in practice the maps produced by the party in control of state legislatures at the time the software became widely available were implemented wholesale, while the maps produced by those affiliated with the minority party are essentially little more than whimsical wish lists. Because of the current state political landscape, the advent of this technology has further played to the Republicans' advantage.

In Texas, for example, the Republicans chose to concentrate Democratic votes into a handful of massively safe Democratic seats, in the process diluting the Democratic presence in many other seats that, until this year, were considered competitive for both parties. While such practices have a long history, the precision of the new software makes it that much easier to create boundaries that are virtually invulnerable to electoral surprises. Thus it makes those in control of the map-making that much more important within the political process. Many Democrats believe the Republican strategy in Texas ultimately involves creating a handful of ultrasafe Democratic seats based on the votes of African-Americans and Latinos, while ringing these seats with safe Republican districts dominated by conservative white voters.

Absent an extraordinary collapse in levels of public support for the GOP, or a comprehensive Supreme Court ruling against the practice of out-and-out political gerrymandering during redistricting battles, the result of all this maneuvering is likely to be a Republican stranglehold on the House of Representatives for the rest of the decade. And this is despite the fact that the electorate is split virtually down the middle in its support for the two main parties. "Not counting 2002," a year in which the Republicans polled better than in recent elections, helped by the coattails effect of the wartime popularity of President Bush, "the last three elections before that had less than 1 percent difference between Democrats and Republicans," says Steve Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "That's only happened seven times in the past century. It's conceivable that [as a result of redistricting] you could see Democrats winning more of the popular vote nationwide than Republicans, yet winning less of the seats."

The Republicans are playing a very risky game. As with the 2000 presidential election and the California gubernatorial recall election, by undermining the traditional time constraints on redistricting, they have carried out an end run around the accepted parameters of political partisanship. In so doing, they are greatly diminishing the ability of the country's political structures to float above the debates and passions engendered by day-to-day politicking. By impinging on the structures themselves, the Republican machine may ultimately render stable governance a halcyon vision from the past. For what one party does, the other party is sure to follow up on.

Some strategists believe that the Democrats, when they still controlled the legislature and governorship in California, should have broken up the Republican voting bloc in conservative Orange County by extending the boundaries of overwhelmingly Democratic districts from Los Angeles southward. "The Democrats had the chance to do in California what Tom DeLay is doing in Texas," states Steve Hill. "The Democrats didn't leave themselves enough opportunities to retake the House. They're going to suffer that problem now throughout the rest of the decade. This is the winner-take-all system. That's the game." Now, in the states they still control, the Democrats will likely face tremendous pressure to try to counteract the Republican seat grab in Texas and Colorado. With both Democrats and Republicans scrambling to redraw Congressional lines after each election, a downward cycle of political one-upmanship has now become a virtual certainty.

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