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A Redistricting Primer


REDISTRICTING is one of the least understood but most vital aspects of the American political process. The results affect the composition of Congress, state legislatures, and local offices - and that has a far-reaching impact on the lives of Americans.Here's how the process works: Every 10 years, the US Census tells us how many people live in each state, and where they live. Because the size of a state's delegation to the United States House of Representatives is based on population, states that lose a substantial number of people lose House seats; states that gain a substantial number of people gain House seats. But since 1910, the total number of available seats in the House has been capped at 435. The process of dividing that pie among states after each census is called apportionment. Within states, the census data are used to re-draw boundaries for US House districts, as well as those for state legislatures. In some states, independent commissions re-draw the boundaries; in others, state legislatures wield the pencil. In either case, the process is called redistricting.

Gerrymandering In the past, this highly political process often has resulted in gerrymandering, in which the majority party draws districts in ways that help it maintain or increase its advantage. The term originated in Massachusetts, after Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1811 approved a long, skinny district for the 6th congressional district to concentrate Federalist party representation. A gerrymandered district may "pack" or "stack" different neighborhoods together to increase their influence. Or they may be "cracked" apart into several districts to dilute their strength. But advances in computer technology have opened the process to wider review; in principle, anyone with a high-end personal computer and the right software can check population distribution. This, combined with more-aggressive use of provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, plus a 1982 amendment to the act, is making gerrymandering more difficult. Minority communities are beginning to use the act and subsequent amendments to ensure that districts are not drawn in ways that dilute their voting strength. One provision of the act gives the federal government the right to approve redistricting plans. The United States Justice Department already has rejected these plans for 16 states, says Kim Grace, president of Election Data Services, a political-consulting firm that specializes in redistricting issues. These include most of the states in the Deep So uth and several states with Indian reservations, such as Minnesota and New Mexico. Because of the amendments, any state that has sizable concentrations of minorities must draw districts that give those groups a good shot at sending a representative to Washington. If minorities feel that they are being gerrymandered out of a representative, they can ask a federal court to order an alternative plan.

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Republican-minority link Ironically, in many populous states dominated by Democrats, Republicans are giving racial minorities legal and technical advice and money to help set up districts that will all but guarantee a minority victory. This would hurt white, liberal Democrats with a substantial urban-minority base of support and could intensify the suburban character of adjacent districts. Big-city suburbs tend to vote Republican. "We definitely have a common cause with racial minorities," says Benjamin Ginsberg, chief counsel of the Republican National Committee. "Both groups have been victimized by white incumbent gerrymanderers of the past. So if you create fairer maps, that's going to help minorities and Republicans achieve our fair share of representatives." "The end result of the process," says Mr. Grace, "is that you'll see a widely different milieu of issues come to forefront, like abortion, that will be very different from what the Democrats would have. The Republican movement that has been at presidential level has the potential of going down to lower levels."

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