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Gerrymandering partisan lock: Shape of things to come

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Poisonous lizards are coming to Washington, and they're hailing disproportionately from Maryland, North Carolina and Texas.

Two years after the 2010 census, new congressional districts have been set in the decennial reapportionment process run by the states, and some members joining the House of Representatives will be representing amorphous areas resembling the letter U, a rifle, an octopus and, yes, the salamander that gave "gerrymandering" its name. Gerrymandering was pioneered two centuries ago in 1812 by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry.

The lines are drawn with devious precision, most often to guarantee that each party remains in control of particular districts. The new lines also will serve to preserve or exacerbate the ideological polarization of Congress for the next five sessions.

"Gerrymandering certainly locks in districts for one party or the other for essentially the whole decade," and it occurred this year at a time when the House already is at a high-water mark for hyperpartisanship as well as Republican domination, said Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at California's Claremont McKenna College.

Many members of Congress no longer represent communities the way residents think of them, but rather areas containing slivers of many cities hundreds of miles apart.

"A legislator will do whatever he or she wants with virtually no accountability because anyone who might try to challenge an incumbent — a mayor or any other local official — has his own base split up," Mr. Johnson said.

Though gerrymandering is done to protect incumbents, in the long term, it leads to ever-increasing extremes as districts carved with partisanship in mind remove the need for candidates to moderate for middle-ground voters.

"It's a danger for incumbents when a seat is too safe: There's an incentive for more extreme candidates in the primary because the general no longer matters," Mr. Johnson said, conjuring the tea party challengers who knocked longtime moderate Republicans from their perches.

The Washington Times used mathematical formulas to identify boundaries that least resemble the squares or circles that one might expect and found that Maryland had the least-compact districts in the nation, even lower than Hawaii's islands. That's in part a result of the state's unique shape, but mostly because of a redistricting plan from the Democrat-controlled Maryland General Assembly viewed as so partisan that a referendum on it also was on the Nov. 6 ballot.

West Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Virginia rounded out the list of states with most-tortured districts.

"When there's one party in control, there's no real check," Mr. Johnson said.

In Illinois, Democrats took four seats from Republicans on Election Day, and in North Carolina, Republicans took three formerly Democratic seats. The GOP-controlled legislature there did so in part by drawing areas that lumped Democratic strongholds into one, forcing the state's Democratic lawmakers to fight one another, as it did with Reps. David Price and Brad Miller when it drew a map that included Mr. Price's town and then snaked out to rope in Mr. Miller's residence.

"If it were not for the trees in the way, I could hit the 13th District with a sand wedge from my home in the 4th District," Mr. Miller, who decided not to run for re-election as a result, told The Times.

North Carolina, which has spawned numerous Supreme Court cases involving reapportionment, has a law requiring districts to follow existing political boundaries, such as counties, where possible, but it was not applied because of legal wrangling, he said.

"If the legal requirement of not dividing counties unnecessarily had applied, we'd have fairly reasonable districts that people would look at and not think of as an embarrassment," Mr. Miller said.

In Maryland, Democrats decided that having two conservative members of the U.S. House out of eight was too many, and Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett's 18-year run in the House ended when they radically changed the composition of his district by adding the Democrat-heavy Washington suburbs.

"You look at the map, and basically they carved it up like a Thanksgiving turkey," said Tony Campbell, president of Marylanders for Coherent and Fair Representation, which backed the referendum that would have forced the state to redraw its lines in time for the 2014 elections.

Mr. Bartlett is "86 years old; it's not like he was going to be in office for the next 10 years anyway," he said, adding that "Maryland is not only dominated by Democrats, but they feel like they can't be touched."

The referendum to re-redraw the boundaries got only 36 percent of the vote, which Mr. Campbell attributed to ballot language written by Democrats that simply asked whether voters supported "boundaries for the state's eight United States congressional districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution."

But the results showed that even many Democrats who were happy to see their party gain seats were disgusted with the way they did so, he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, previous excesses in redistricting have led to the formation of independent, nonpartisan commissions, in California beginning this time and in Arizona a decade ago. The lesser protection to incumbents was immediately visible: Of 63 House seats that changed parties this year, 15 were in California and four were in Arizona.

Data-mining technology has made gerrymandering more effective in the years since computers have become common.

"Over the last couple decades, gerrymandering is definitely getting worse. We're seeing people really finely tune the lines using the amazing amount of data available. One of the protections against gerrymandering 20 or 30 years ago was simply that the data wasn't that good," Mr. Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the means by which the media inform constituents about the people hoping to represent them has lagged behind, with newspapers laying off reporters and struggling to cover one congressman and his challengers now attempting to provide scrutiny of several districts that crisscross through their coverage areas.

"They're actually divvying up TV and newspaper markets, and the newspapers don't have the resources to cover them. There's an added level of advantage to incumbents," Mr. Johnson said.

Incumbents, who have a built-in financial advantage, also gain when challengers have to pay to advertise in each of those markets. In North Carolina's 9th District, which is 80 miles long and 1.5 miles wide at points, Republican Robert Pittenger will replace retiring GOP Rep. Sue Myrick, but only after a chaotic campaign in the multimarket district that had 10 candidates in the Republican primary, each with a different geographical base of support.

By Election Day, the race cost more than any other House race in the state, and if Mrs. Myrick were not retiring, no one would have had the resources to take her on.

The Times' algorithm suggested that new districts across the nation are slightly more compact than those from 2001, in part because of California's improvements, but that some states, including Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Illinois, have become worse.

Not all irregularly shaped districts are the result of sheer partisanship. The law also requires the boundaries to afford minority groups the power to be a controlling voice in their districts if reasonably possible. But as with members of one party, "packing" them in great concentrations in one district reduces their influence statewide.

In Florida, Democrat Corrine Brown sailed to re-election after opposing an amendment that would have required the state's districts to be compact, a stance that put the black legislator at odds with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the state Democratic Party.

The amendment's supporters said blacks had less of a voice when they were packed into districts designed to capture them, making all the other districts whiter and more Republican.

In the early 1990s, when Southern states aggressively applied the law creating majority-minority districts where possible, the Congressional Black Caucus swelled from 28 in 1991 to 44 in 1995 -- and Republicans swept the House overall.

"The Voting Rights Act has become a pretext particularly with Republicans in charge for creating, really, Jim Crow districts that have resulted in maybe more African-American members of Congress," but fewer Democrats, and therefore less power for the blacks who overwhelmingly support that party, Mr. Miller said.

Mrs. Brown, whose own future was at stake, argued that the best way to give blacks a voice was to ensure they had at least one black official from the area in Washington.

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