The 1991-92 nationwide redistricting process is now underway. Here's a look at redistricting as it relates to change in the partisan composition of the U.S. House of Representatives, with a special focus on cynical GOP efforts to boost their numbers by packing minority voters into the smallest possible number of districts.
Redistricting measures are still pending in a total of twenty-seven states1, including fifteen of the twenty-one states where redistricting will be complicated by gains or losses of Congressional seats. In order to understand how the process has unfolded thus far, and how recent developments will impact redistricting battles in the states where plans are not yet finalized, we must turn to an overview of the players involved. The major players in the current decennial redistricting process can be categorized as follows:
The Democratic and Republican national parties, each battling for control of state legislatures around the country and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Incumbent members of Congress, particularly those whose states are losing districts and whose own immediate political futures are at risk.
State legislators, on whose shoulders rest the actual task of drawing up plans.
Minority legislators and interest groups, who most often are seeking the creation of more districts with minority populations in the majority.
Also crucial to the process thus far have been individual states' governors2, most of whom wield veto power over any redistricting plans proposed by state legislatures, the Bush Administration Justice Department3, which wields veto power over any plans drawn for areas covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act4, more broadly-based public interest groups5, whose primary interest is to ensure the overall fairness and openness of the process itself, and the federal courts6, the final battleground for parties dissatisfied with many state redistricting plans.
The Republicans are much better positioned this decade than at any other time in the past to use redistricting battles for potential partisan gains. During the 1980s, regional growth trends continued to favor the GOP, as populations shifted away from cities to suburban and exurban areas nationwide, and from the Frostbelt to more GOP-leaning Sunbelt states.
Strategists began laying the groundwork for the GOP's "1991 Plan"7 during the mid-1980s. Republicans focused first on making gains at state legislative levels, to increase the amount of influence they would have in redistricting for the 1990s.8
The Republican attention to redistricting is one element of a broader GOP strategy that sees 1992 as the party's best opportunity in the near future to possibly wrest control of the House from Democratic hands. Briefly, GOP plans for 1992 are as follows:
Field strong GOP candidates9 in races involving largest number of open Congressional seats in years due to redistricting shifts and the expected retirement of many senior House Democrats, some eager to pocket unused campaign funds before reform legislation10 takes effect in 1992, some forced into unfriendly districts by redistricting11.
Use redistricting to engineer new, Republican-leaning districts that GOP candidates will run well in throughout the next decade.
Count on a bigger, more conservative turnout of casual voters in 1992 general election to help elect these GOP Congressional candidates.
In perhaps the strangest and most potentially threatening development of the current round of redistricting, Republicans have made common cause with some minority advocacy groups12, in order to ensure an increased number of GOP-leaning districts. Paradoxically, both state and national Republican officials have made it clear13 that they intend to achieve this by helping to create more districts where minorities are likely to be elected.
Such districts would almost certainly be won by minority Democrats, but would deprive white incumbent Democrats in surrounding districts of reliable minority votes. Not surprisingly, Republicans hope that they will be more competitive in the whiter, more suburban districts which will hopefully be created as a byproduct of ensuring minority representation.
The Democratic strategy for maintaining a competitive edge in the current round of redistricting is defensive to the Republicans' offensive, geared towards protecting the current 267-165 Democratic House majority. To these ends, a two-fold strategy has emerged: efforts to ensure continued Democratic control of the mechanics of redistricting, i.e., Democratic control of key governorships and state legislatures (see Table One, appendix) and efforts to counter Republican-led attempts to draw minority Congressional districts at the expense of incumbent white Democrats.
Project 500. Chaired by former Congressman Tony Coelho (D-CA), this effort raised roughly $4 million between 1986-1991 to spend on state gubnatorial and legislature races in eighteen states where the margins of party control in one or the other legislative chambers were slight.14
IMPAC 2000. Headed by Rep. Martin Frost (D-TX), IMPAC 2000 is the House Democratic Caucus' redistricting committee. Frost inherited the group's chairmanship from Rep. Vic Fazio (D-CA), who led fundraising efforts for the $2.8 million the group spent on 1990 legislative and gubnatorial races in twenty-two states, $2 million of which went to defeat two Republican-sponsoring redistricting ballot initiatives in California.15
The Democratic response to the Republican-engineered coalition with some minority groups has been to recognize that the creation of minority districts in this round of redistricting is inevitable. Thus, Democrats are trying wherever possible to take an active, well-publicized role in determining just how new minority districts will look. This is in order to deny Republicans credit for their creation, but more importantly, to ensure that the new minority districts are one that minimize damage to Democratic white incumbents. Democratic legislatures are drawing plans which create districts with only bare majorities of minority populations (North Carolina)16, or with districts that show minorities in the majority only if two distinct minority populations' numbers are added together (Texas)17.
Incumbent Members of Congress
Regardless of party or ideology, incumbent members of Congress all share one common political objective: ensuring their re-elections.
Representatives from states that will be losing or gaining Congressional seats want to have as much say as possible determining what the newly-drawn districts will look like, since it is a question that directly and immediately affects their own political futures. This is especially true of Representatives from states that will be losing seats in 1991-92. Most have actively tried to cultivate ties with the legislators in their home states who will actually be re-drawing the district lines.
To these ends, House members from states that will be losing seats due to reapportionment contributed over $1 million in contributions and loans to state legislative candidates in 1989-90.18 This was in addition to over $600,000 that all Democratic House members contributed to the political efforts of IMPAC 2000. Yet ties forged between Representatives and state legislators are not a surefire way to cement one's political fortunes, as shown by the recent experience of U.S. Rep. Harley O. Staggers, Jr. (D-WV), whose West Virginia district was decimated by vengeful legislators after he was accused of trying to cut a deal with the West Virginia House leadership that would have paired two other incumbents together in the same district.19
State legislative leaderships wield the most power over how the nuts and bolts of state redistricting plans are to be determined.20 They differ somewhat from rank and file members of legislatures in that they are more prone to being politically committed to protecting allies in their states' Congressional delegations from damaging district changes. However, legislators in powerful state leadership positions do share similar redistricting objectives with rank and file legislators, who vote on final passage of plans, to the extent that as incumbent legislators they are all interested in ensuring their own re-elections.
Thus, for the most part legislators have welcomed their contacts with House members concerning redistricting. It has afforded them financial contributions to their own campaigns, and also access to House members' invaluable demographic and other information about Congressional districts within their states. Some legislators seeking to climb the power ladder have attempted to put this information to use by designing new Congressional districts that they might themselves run well in someday.
Minority Advocacy Groups
Most share a smiliar objective: ensuring the creation of more districts where minority candidates have greater chances of winning election. The gains that minorities made at state legislative levels during the 1980s have positioned minority state legislative caucuses and other advocacy groups to exert far greater influence over the redistricting process than ever before, and much easier to press for districts to be drawn so as to ensure increased minority Congressional representation.
There is widespread agreement that it will not do for minority communities to simply "wield influence" over several districts likely to be won by white Democrats. Direct political representation must be ensured where possible. Optimistic Republican claims meant to encourage minority groups to press for as many minority districts as possible have estimated that minority representation in Congress could as much as double if "fair" redistricting plans were passed nationwide.21
However, there is no unified minority strategy. Some minority groups and elected black officials realize that creating minority districts at the expense of white Democratic incumbents will only dilute the votes of minorities likely to be elected to such new seats. To prevent this, several have signed on to plans creating districts with much smaller "minority majorities" than would be preferred by Republicans eager to see minority voters packed into districts that have 65% or greater minority populations.
1 While all fifty states will be re-drawing state legislature district lines this decade, only forty-three will reconfigure their Congressional boundaries. Congressional and state district plans have thus far passed and are likely to stand in a total of eleven states: Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Missouri, Hawaii, New Mexico, Maryland, Utah, and Illinois. Five additional states have passed plans which are now facing legal scrutiny: Texas, North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, and West Virginia. (As of November 9, 1991. "Redistricting in the States," table, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, November 9, 1991, p 3324.)
2 In all but four states (Connecticut, Hawaii, North Carolina, Washington), governors have veto power over redistricting plans proposed by legislative redistricting committees or state commissions. (Redistricting Provisions - 50 State Profiles. National Conference of State Legislatures Reapportionment Task Force, October 1989, p 105.)
Governors do not have powers similar to those of state legislative leaderships (see above section on state legislators) in making appointments to state redistricting commissions. So far, the actions of individual states' governors in the 1991-92 redistricting process have unfolded along predictably partisan lines; plans designed by Democratically-controlled legislatures have been approved in those states with Democratic governors (Texas) and vetoed in states with Republican governors (California).
3 The Department of Justice under the Reagan and Bush Administrations has been consistently vigilant in enforcing voting rights provisions that maximize minority voting strength. In the five years from 1980-85, the Department vetoed 110 redistricting plans in areas under the jurisdiction of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that would have diluted minority voting rights, versus 26 during the Carter Administration. Taking the high number of submissions following the 1980 census into account, the rate of enforcement was roughly comparable to that achieved under Carter. ("Beware of Republicans Bearing Voting Rights Suits," Matthew Cooper. Washington Monthly, Feb. 1987, p 14.)
Throughout the 1980s, the department continued to use its rights under Section 5 to push for the creation of districts with minorities in the majority whenever possible, pursuing a shrewd GOP strategy of weakening white Democratic incumbents by separating them from loyal minority constituencies (see above section on national Republican Party).
This trend has continued under the Bush Administration, and thus any plans submitted to the Justice Department for areas covered under Section 5 that trade off minority strength for Democratic partisan advantage are likely to be veteod. It is widely believed that this will happen to the plan submitted by North Carolina's Democratically-controlled General Assembly and currently under Justice Department review, with the final decision to come in early January of 1992.
4 Currently, sixteen states are covered in whole or part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act - Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. ("Voting Rights, Voting Wrongs," Bernard Grofman. Twentieth Century Fund Paper, Priority Publications Press, 1990, p 10.)
5 A decade ago, redistricting was the exclusive domain of the major political parties and state redistricting commissions. Starting costs for an effective computerized redistricting system were over $1 million, including computers, programming, and software. Now, the price of entry is under $100,000. This alone has ensured that scores of special interest and public interest groups nationwide have been able to influence the current round of redistricting to an extent never possible before.
Such groups include the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the public employees' union that is running its own plans in New York and Ohio, or the Indiana State Teachers' Association, which calculated several years ago that the way to influence state politics was to influence redistricting. For an investment of $65,000, the union has been able to serve as a source of independent and sometimes competing analysis for Indiana legislators involved with the redistricting process. The same is true of many statewide affiliates of organizations such as Common Cause, whose interests lie in a more fair, open redistricting process itself. ("With Cheaper, Better Data, Advocacy Groups Emerge as Growing Force in Redistricting Fights," David Shribman. Wall Street Journal, May 29, 1991, p A14.)
6 The federal courts are likely to decide more federal suits dealing with redistricting this decade than ever before. In some states, simply the appearance of impasse over redistricting has been enough for partisan suits to be filed seeking judicial intervention (South Carolina, Alabama, Michigan, California). In others, state redistricting deadlines have passed without final agreement being reached on plans, sending the task of redistricting on to federal courts (Oregon, Illinois). Likely to be far more common once more states finalize their plans are suits filed by various state political parties, minority and public interest groups, and private citizens objecting to plans that will be approved by state legislatures. Already, this has happened to plans approved by Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, and West Virginia.
The increase in the likelihood of redistricting battles being taken to federal courts is easily explained. A series of Supreme Court rulings on redistricting during the 1980s, including Davis v Bandemer (1986), have greatly increased the chances that plans found to have overly partisan gerrymandering consequences will be struck down. This has emboldened state Republican parties across the nation, in control of a minority of state legislatures that will be drawing up redistricting plans, but poised to take advantage of a federal judiciary now heavily weighted with Reagan and Bush appointments. ("Lawyers, Judges at Forefront in Numerous Map Disputes," Beth Donovan. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, October 12, 1991, p 2976.)
7 "The 1991 Plan," Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. Campaigns and Elections, Sept/Oct 1986, p 50.
8 Although Democrats still control three-fifths of state legislatures nationwide, Republicans today hold either governorships or at least one legislative chamber in thirty of the forty-three states which will redraw Congressional boundaries. Republicans will clearly have substantially greater input concerning how plans are shaped than they did in 1980. ("GOP, Outgunned in Recent Redistricting Wars, Is Doing Surprisingly Well This Time Around," David Shribman. Wall Street Journal, September 16, 1991, p A20.)
9 A concerted effort was made by the national Republican Party to recruit GOP congressional candidates for races in 1990 against entrenched Democratic incumbents who were seen as possible 1992 retirees. The strategy was to position such candidates for success in open districts if hoped-for retirements materialized.
Some of the more high-profile Democratic incumbents who were thus challenged by GOP newcomers in 1990 included Doug Barnard (D-GA), William Lipinski and Frank Annunzio (both D-IL), and Jack Brooks (D-TX). Of these four, both Barnard and Annunzio have indeed announced their impending retirements. ("Non-Realignment," Fred Barnes. New Republic, April 2, 1990, p 11-12.)
10 Congress voted in 1989 to repeal a provision of the campaign finance law that allowed retiring House members elected before 1980 to convert unspent campaign surpluses to their personal funds. The legislation will take effect for 1992-94 Congressional terms. ("Incumbents Angling for Edge in 1990's Line Drawing," Peter Bragdon. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, October 14, 1989, p 2735.)
11 As of November 9, 1991, a total of twenty incumbent U.S. House members had announced they would not be seeking re-election, or had announced for or were considered likely to seek higher office in 1992.
Retiring members are Doug Barnard (D-GA), Dennis Eckart (D-OH), Walter Jones (D-NC), Don Pease (D-OH), Morris Udall (D-AZ), and Frank Annunzio (D-IL). All of these members' districts are either likely to or have already undergone serious revision due to redistricting. Some also will be able to convert substantial sums of unspent campaign monies into personal funds (Barnard, Jones, Annunzio). ("Congressional Departures," table, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, November 9, 1991, p 3322.)
12 To these ends, a tax-exempt offshoot of the Republican National Committee called Lawyers for the Republic is offering a sophisticated redistricting software package developed by the RNC to minority groups around the country eager to design minority districts in states where it is feasible to do so. The software package is the same as that being used by state GOP parties and Republican legislative caucuses, and was developed at a cost of more than $500,000. Minority groups receiving the software are charged only a nominal fee.
Lawyers for the Republic is also assisting such groups prepare court suits in anticipation that Democratically-controlled state legislatures in some states will not design redistricting plans that fully maximize minority voting strength. ("GOP counts on redistricting tool," Computerworld, April 23, 1990, p 17.)
13 The Republican Party's main strategists on redistricting and architects of GOP efforts to ensure the creation of more districts with minorities in the majority are Benjamin L. Ginsberg, GOP chief counsel, and Edward J. Rollins, until recently the co-chairman of the NRCC (National Republican Congressional Committee). ("Strategy Divides Top Republicans," Richard Berke, New York Times, May 9, 1991, p A17.)
14 "Project 500," Will Robinson. Campaigns and Elections, Sept/Oct 1986, p 50. Also, "Money On the Line," Viveca Novak. Common Cause, Jan/Feb 1991, p 12-13.
15 In California, an infamous redistricting plan designed by the late Rep. Phillip Burton and passed in 1983 boosted Democratic control of California's House delegation from 22-21 to 28-17, in spite of massive growth in GOP-leaning California suburbs and gains made in voter registration totals by the state GOP throughout the 70s and 80s.
With California poised to gain another seven seats this decade, Democrats launched an all-out campaign to defeat two 1990 ballot initiatives in California that would have taken redistricting control away from the Democratically-controlled legislature. This campaign's major funding source was the approximately $2 million provided by IMPAC 2000. ("Democrats Steer Funds Westward," Chuck Alston. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, May 25, 1991, p 1346.)
16 The North Carolina plan created only one black-majority district, located in the northeastern part of the state. It has only a bare majority (51%) of black voters, although the numbers could have been higher had lines not been drawn to allow incumbent white Democrat Martin Lancaster to retain a 22% black constituency in his district. The plan also failed to create a second potential black-majority district in the Charlotte area, leaving the district encompassing most of the city's urban and surrounding areas only 21% black. Elected black officials such as N.C. House Speaker Dan Blue supported the plan in part because neither of the two districts in question supposedly discriminate against black candidates; as newly drawn, they gave black Democrat Harvey Gantt 62% and 57% of the vote in his 1990 race against U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. ("North Carolina Computer Draws Some Labyrinthine Lines," Beth Donovan. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, July 13, 1991, p 1916.)
17 Texas' new map, which is currently under Department of Justice review, provides for the creation of three new minority districts - two Hispanic and one black-majority, in the Dallas area. Initially, it was suggested that the black-majority district be divided between white (39%), black (39%) and Hispanic (22%) voters, and thus have minorities in the majority only when the populations of two distinct minority communities were combined. This was in part to ensure that Dallas County white incumbent Democrats John Bryant and Martin Frost (who heads the U.S. House Democratic Caucus redistricting committtee) would retain minority voters within their own districts. However, the efforts of state Sen. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Texas Reapportionment Commission chairwoman and a potential candidate for the new black-majority Congress seat, ensured that the district as approved was slightly over 50% black, and 17% Hispanic, for a total of 67% minority.
In addition to Justice Dept. scrutiny, the Texas plan also has federal lawsuits pending against it, filed by state Republican officials. ("Three Minority Districts Added as Texas Draws Its New Map," Charles Mahtesian. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, August 31, 1991, p 2374.)
18 "Incumbents Share the Wealth, with Redistricting in Mind," Chuck Alston. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, May 25, 1991, p 1343.
19 West Virginia is losing one Congressional seat in the current round of redistricting, dropping to three seats from four. Democratic Rep. Staggers' district was dismembered by the West Virginia state legislature's redistricting plan and divided amongst the districts represented by all remaining three Democratic incumbents. In an earlier plan considered by the state Senate in March, 1991, Staggers was to be paired with fellow incumbent Nick Rahall. However, that plan was scrapped by the state House and replaced with a plan giving Staggers his own district while pairing off two other incumbents, Bob Wise and Alan Mollohan.
Staggers was accused by the state Senate President, Keith Burdette, of cutting a private deal with the House leadership in an attempt to save his own hide. Burdette's chief objective was to ensure the re-election of Mollohan, a political ally, and thus he assembled a legislative coalition to reject the second plan and instead push through a third district map that in effect, redistricted Staggers out of a seat.
Supporters of Staggers have filed suit against the plan in federal court, which remains pending. ("Cut By Lines, Staggers Mulls Choice," Bob Benenson. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, Nov. 9, 1991, p 3328.)
20 Depending on the state, House and Senate leaderships may have the power to decide what technical means (i.e., computer hardware and software systems) will be used in the process, or to hire the consulting firms that will provide states with extensive technical assistance regarding their plans. Most state leaderships control the appointment of individual state legislators and/or public members to sit on state redistricting commissions that are charged with the actual development of plans. ("Redistricting," Kimball Brace. Campaigns and Elections, March, 1991, p 33)
21 "Minority Mapmaking," James Barnes. National Journal, April 7, 1990, p 837.