While technically all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for grabs in November, handicappers expect a mere 33 to be competitive, in part because many incumbents already have picked the voters they hope will return them to office.
Across the country, lawmakers will run for re-election in bizarrely shaped congressional districts carefully drawn to include voters who support them and exclude those who don’t.
In Chicago, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez will face voters in several Hispanic neighborhoods but not the predominantly black neighborhood that sits between them.
South of the city, Republican Rep. Jerry Weller’s parents will get a chance to vote for their son, whose district was redrawn five years ago to encompass their house.
Critics of the practice known as gerrymandering — named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, a master of tortuous redistricting two centuries ago — say it produces a legislative body that doesn’t accurately represent the country.
“We now have a system where too often our representatives are selecting their voters rather than voters selecting their representatives,” Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama said at a recent conference on election reform.
The U.S. Supreme Court this week will consider whether a 2003 effort by Texas Republicans that gave them six more seats in Congress violates the federal voting rights laws, as Democrats and minority groups charge.
The court in 2004 upheld a Pennsylvania effort that helped Republicans, on the grounds that the court should not interfere with a process best left to politics.
HOW IT WORKS
Since the House cannot add seats as the population expands, states must redraw their electoral maps after every 10-year population census to ensure that their congressional seats are allocated properly among states according to the population.
States that gain population, like Florida and Texas after the 2000 census, often pick up seats from states that lose population, like Pennsylvania did. Within each state, districts must be redrawn to reflect population shifts as well.
In most cases, the party that controls the state legislature runs the show. Democrats in Maryland gained two congressional seats in 2002 after they drew the state’s political boundaries to their advantage. In Michigan, Republicans who redrew their state map picked up three seats that year.
In states where neither party has a clear advantage, such as Illinois, leaders often work out a compromise that protects as many incumbents as possible.
“Every legislator knows where their political strengths are, where the greatest number of votes comes from, and with the ability to draw the maps themselves they can carve out districts that are very precisely drawn to favor their future political interests,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.
States like Iowa, Arizona and New Jersey don’t let lawmakers draw their own districts but appoint an outside panel of experts to do the job.
Voters in California and Ohio rejected similar proposals last fall, but observers said both proposals suffered from association with the politicians promoting them — an increasingly unpopular Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, out-of-power Democrats in Ohio. Efforts are under way in both states to put the issue before voters again in a less partisan manner.
Redistricting reform alone won’t make House races more competitive, experts say, because incumbents would still enjoy huge fund-raising and name-recognition advantages over most challengers.
Even states like Arizona haven’t seen an increase in the number of competitive races since they adopted a nonpartisan redistricting scheme, said Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz.
“As long as you have an incumbent running, you’re not going to have a competitive race,” Abramowitz said.
But George Mason University professor Michael McDonald said impartial redistricting can make sure those advantages are not absolute, even in an era of increased partisanship.
“The red parts are becoming redder and the blue parts are becoming bluer but that doesn’t mean we can’t draw districts that are reasonably competitive,” he said, referring to the popular nicknames for states dominated by either Republicans or Democrats.