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Gerrymander Plum

CONGRESS will become even more a Democratic bastion because of last week's elections. Already enjoying a wide majority in the House of Representatives and a comfortable margin in the Senate, the Democrats picked up eight more House seats and another Senate seat. But for Democrats the sweetest victory - and for Republicans the bitterest defeat - was preserving their control of the process for redrawing state and House legislative districts based on the 1990 census. More than just ensuring Democratic control of Congress for the next two years, the election results virtually guarantee the Democrats control of at least the House of Representatives throughout the decade.

Congressional and state legislative districts are redesigned after each census to reflect population shifts. The borders are drawn by the state legislatures, with governors exercising approval or veto power.

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In recent congressional elections the popular vote has divided far more evenly between Democrats and Republicans than the lopsided House numbers reflect. Why? Because for decades Democrats have dominated the redistricting machinery in many states. In the early '80s the Republican Party resolved to wrest control of the redistricting process from Democrats and has poured resources into that effort. But to little avail.

Democrats will have total redistricting control in 19 states with 167 House seats (38 percent). Through Republican governors or control of at least one legislative chamber, the GOP will have a voice in redistricting in the remaining states, but in many of those states Democrats will dominate the process.

Gerrymandering run amok offends basic notions of fairness and democracy, for it effectively disenfranchises voters who, by ``creative'' boundary drawing, have been artificially rendered a perpetual political minority in a legislative district. But throughout American history gerrymandering has been accepted as one of the spoils of political war. Democrats love the system, and even most Republicans - their eyes on a hoped for, albeit distant future - accept it.

What about legal challenges? As long as district lines satisfy the principle of one-person, one-vote, courts are unlikely to poke into this political issue. A federal court in Los Angeles this year set aside a districting plan for county supervisors that discriminated against Hispanic voters, but the civil-rights protections underlying that case do not apply to ordinary gerrymandering practices.

One can only hope that fair play won't be ignored as state lawmakers go about carving up the electorate for another 10 years.

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