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Democracy's Geometry

The once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional districts to reflect US Census data has traditionally put partisan politics above ensuring equal representation for US citizens in Washington.

An oddly drawn district in Illinois, for instance, is some 75 miles long, but in places only a block wide. That hardly fits the generally accepted definition of redistricting that calls for districts to be "compact in form."

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With the US House (along with many state legislatures) closely split along party lines, new districts mostly reflect incumbent protection.

This year has also seen the courts, more than ever, become the arbiters of disputes over how lines should be drawn. So much so that the National Conference of State Legislatures sends out daily updates on pending and new cases.

Controversy swirls around current practices of carving up the country. Too often, racial, ethnic, and income groups are lumped into voting blocs, even though the Supreme Court has taken issue with the use of race to draw district lines.

Census 2000 methods also remain an issue, with suspicions that statistical techniques used to augment a direct head count might hurt one party or the other.

State legislators, charged with this key piece of the public's business, should create workable compromises instead of generating lawsuits. Developing a better process for redistricting, freer from partisan politics, should be uppermost in their minds.

Such a process already exists in Iowa. There, an independent, nonpartisan agency draws the redistricting maps. And for the past three census counts, the Iowa legislature has not once thrown out its agency's plan. Other states should take notice.


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