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Redistricting by computer: some politicians worry they'll lose control

Computers, which are being used to design a variety of items from autos to aircraft, now are being used to etch the outlines of an area of particular sensitivity -- congressional and state legislative districts.

It is too early to assess how successful high technology will be in shaping new elective districts to the satisfaction of the public, if not various survival-bent lawmakers. But some political interests are increasingly apprehensive about losing control over a largely political process.

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Legislators or special redistricting panels in at least 34 states either are using or plan to employ computers to some degree in carrying out their often-delicate assignments.

In many cases, computers will be confined to the task of checking out perhaps partisan-shaded districts already crafted.

Even those states that have taken the redistricting process either entirely or substantially out of the hands of state lawmakers are hesitant to step aside and let an impersonal, high-speed machine take over.

Such a takeover lies at the heart of an initiative petition being circulated in Ohio by a coalition of civic interests.The petition seeks to amend the state constitution to computerize redistricting.

The measure, whose sponsors hope to place it on a statewide ballot next November, would set up a five-member, bipartisan commission that would oversee a computer evaluation of all proposed redistricting plans.

Any citizen or group, with the support of 400 voter signatures, would be able to submit a plan for congressional or legislative redistricting. Using a mathematical formula, the computer would rate the proposals. The plan providing the most compact districts with as near equal as possible populations, would be required to be chosen for implementation.

"Better government through fair and impartial redistricting is our goal," says campaign coordinator John D. Evans, who terms the proposal "innovative."

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The proposed amendment would wipe out the current five-member redistricting board, comprising the governor, auditor, secretary of state, and lawmakers from the two major parties. Lawmakers there, as in most other states, currently are facing congressional districting.

Districting reformers in several other states, including Michigan, are interested in the "let the computer decide what's best" proposal, which was thwarted from making last November's ballot because of disputed wording on some of the petitions.

Perhaps the most elaborate effort at computerized redistricting is under way in New York City, where a team of population specialists and lawmakers is feeding 1980 federal census figures and other data into an electronic data bank.

In this way a variety of potential plans for dividing the state can be produced and with considerably greater speed than in the past, explains Robert F. Kelly, counsel to the New York Reapportionment Task Force. The former Republican state assemblyman from Brooklyn, who as a lawmaker was involved in the 1960 and 1970 redistricting of the Empire State, notes that even with the specially programmed computer system it is unrealistic to expect the project to be over in a matter of weeks or even months.

The six members of the bipartisan task force -- four of whom are legislators -- must agree on which of several districting combinations produced should be submitted to the legislature in Albany.

Because the 1980 census means New York must lose five of its current 39 US House seats, the special panel's first and possibly most challenging job is not only to carve the state into 34 new districts, but also to make certain the new districts are compact and meet "one man, one vote" population standards.

Should the legislature fail to approve a congressional redistricting law early next year, candidates for all 34 of New York's remaining US House seats would have to run statewide in the November 1982 election.

All but one of the nine states that face similar losses in congressional representation come January 1983 also must complete redistricting in the next 12 to 15 months, if not this year.

The exception is South Dakota, which thenceforth will have but one US House seat instead of two.

All 11 of the states that are due to gain one or more congressmen also may have little choice but to redistrict within the coming year.

Except for South Dakota, where no action is required, all but one of the states losing congressional seats are using or plan to use computer assistance of some sort. So are most of the states that will gain representation, as well as more than half of the others, which for the next decade at least will have the same number of congressmen as currently.

Although not specifically required to redistrict every 10 years, all states entitled to more than one congressman are supposed to maintain districts that are compact and contain approximately the same number of inhabitants.

Nevertheless, some states have ignored the obligation or postponed redistricting until forced by the courts to update congressional districts to reflect population shifts.

Besides New York, states employing or considering computer assistance to some degree in congressional redistricting include Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Te xas, Utah, Washington, and West Virginia.

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