Traditionally, state legislatures and courts spend the year after the national Census redrawing Congressional maps to fit the new demographic realities. The party in control of the most state legislatures and governorships at that moment in time is able to muscle through federal Congressional redistricting maps tailored to benefit itself. And then, having spent a year maneuvering for advantage, the parties back off the issue and accept that the new maps will stay in place until the next Census. That, at least, is how things have worked in the past.
Recently, however, having gained control over more state legislatures than it’s had since 1952 (twenty-one to the Democrats’ sixteen, plus twenty-nine governorships), the GOP has not only redrawn the state electoral maps after the Census, it has broken with the decennial tradition and rammed through redistricting plans in mid-decade, most notably in Texas but also in Colorado, where the State Supreme Court recently tossed out the Republican legislature’s new plan.
This aggressive Republican drive represents a Congressional power grab unprecedented in scale and timing. It is being executed with the encouragement of White House operatives from Karl Rove on down, with the full-throttle support of GOP House majority leader Tom DeLay. And its aim is to shore up the party’s Congressional majorities for the next decade.
Amid the brouhaha over redistricting in Texas earlier this year, Representative Martin Frost’s office requested that Library of Congress researchers investigate when the last mid-decade redistricting occurred. David Huckabee, specialist in American national government for the Congressional Research Service, wrote back that “there are no prohibitions for states to revisit the issue of redistricting during the decade following the census, but they appear not to have done so except in response to legal action during the past 50 years.” In other words, actions like those undertaken by Texas Republicans have never in living memory been launched by either political party.
“There’s been a gentlemen’s agreement over time by both parties that you only do redistricting in a year ending in one,” explains Representative Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat. “If a party gains ascendancy later in the decade, it’s unprecedented to do it at the next election.” Redistricting, says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy, “is a longstanding blood-sport. The Democrats traditionally had stuck it to Republicans because they ran so many more states. But they weren’t creative enough to realize they could do it mid-decade.”
The Texas redistricting fight, which featured Democrats fleeing to New Mexico and Oklahoma to prevent the legislature from having a quorum and federal law enforcement officials sent into action by Republican politicians to track down the absentee Donkeys, received by far the most publicity. Wrongly, much of the media portrayed it as a quirky Texas cowboy story with no wider ramifications. In reality, however, this was a power grab orchestrated by the national Republican Party and clearly intended to consolidate power nationally.