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Redistricting Already Hot, Six Years Early

Six years before the next Congressional reapportionment, political officeholders and strategists across the country are already working the redistricting issue with more urgency than ever.

A new Republican-drawn Congressional map is likely to become law in Georgia soon, while redistricting reform proposals are being unveiled in several other states, most recently in Ohio.

In the meantime, supporters of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) proposal to redraw the state’s Congressional and legislative district boundaries before the 2006 elections are racing the clock to place their measure on the November 2005 ballot.

“The calls for reform, the emphasis on reform, and the movements on that are certainly beyond what we heard in the mid-1990s and, it’s safe to say, in the ’80s and ’70s,” said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “There’s more discussion, more legitimate groups forming to tackle the issue. There’s more people saying, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

And if that’s not enough, the U.S. Census Bureau last week added fuel to the redistricting fire by issuing population-growth projections for the next 25 years.

Predictably, states in the South and West will see the fastest growth, which means a significant gain in Congressional seats over the next quarter-century. By contrast, states in the Northeast and Midwest will see slower growth and diminished political influence. By 2030, approximately two-thirds of the American population will be living in the South and West, up from 58 percent in 2000.

According to the Census Bureau, Florida, California and Texas would account for almost half of all U.S. population gains between 2000 and 2030, with Florida poised to pass New York as the third most-populous state by 2011. Arizona and North Carolina are projected to vault into the list of 10 most populous states by 2030, knocking Michigan and New Jersey from the top tier.

Although the Census Bureau made no projections of its own about the apportionment of Congressional seats in 2012, the news produced a flurry of hand-wringing articles and editorials late last week in the Northeast and Midwest anticipating heavy losses in Congressional representation.

“This is unpleasant news but not a surprise,” Robert Ward, director of research for the Public Policy Institute, a business lobbying group in New York, told the Albany Times Union.

Ward calculated that the Empire State will likely lose two of its 29 seats after the 2010 Census and that by 2030, the House delegation may drop to 23. New York was the most populous state in the nation between 1810 and 1970; in 1950 it boasted 45 House seats.

The news of lost Congressional influence also prompted early jockeying for new district boundaries following the 2010 Census.

In Massachusetts, Rep. John Olver (D), who represents the state’s lightly populated western portion, openly fretted in Friday’s Springfield Republican that western Massachusetts could suffer disproportionately if the state loses one or more of its 10 House seats.

But in the largest state, California, where there are already 53 House seats, the focus is not on the next Census but rather on the next election.

Schwarzenegger’s allies, stymied by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in their bid to reform the state’s redistricting process, continue to collect signatures to put a measure on the statewide ballot in November. The governor wants to take the responsibility away from the Legislature and give it to a panel of retired judges — and he wants the judges to produce new maps in time for the 2006 elections.

While Democrats in the Legislature are generally opposed to the proposal, their counterparts in Congress have calculated that there isn’t much risk of losing their 33-20 edge over the GOP in the state’s Congressional delegation. And California’s Congressional Republicans have split on the reform plan.

But time may be the governor’s biggest enemy. While an array of groups are working to collect the 600,000 valid signatures of registered voters needed to put the initiative on the ballot, it is unclear whether they will hit the magic number by the deadline Friday.

Even if they don’t, all may not be lost: A measure requiring parental notification for minors who want to undergo abortions in California is expected to qualify for the November ballot. Caren Daniels-Meade, a spokeswoman for the California secretary of state’s office, said Schwarzenegger then has the option of calling a special November election. If he does — and he has until June 13 to do so — then redistricting reform supporters would have 17 more days to qualify their petitions.

If Schwarzenegger does not call a special election, the abortion initiative and several others, including redistricting, would have to wait until the June 2006 primary to go before voters. That would be too late for the new lines to be in effect for 2006.

Uncertainty over the timing has prompted rumors that Schwarzenegger may seek a compromise with the Legislature, which might be willing to approve his reform plan if it does not go into effect until after the next Census. But Ted Costa, CEO of the People’s Advocate Inc., a Sacramento-based citizens’ group that is leading the charge for redistricting reform, said he believes the talk of compromise is premature.

“I think there’s nothing serious going to come out of there,” he predicted. “And surely I don’t see anything out of there that’s going to stop me from pursuing my initiative.”

Some Golden State political observers have suggested that the Legislature may be willing to adopt Schwarzenegger’s redistricting reforms if the governor agrees to loosen the state’s legislative term limits, which currently restrict state Assembly members to three two-year terms and state Senators to two four-year terms.

But David Gilliard, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant who has worked the redistricting issue, said private polling indicates that a compromise involving term limits would be anathema to the voters.

“That’s always a fantasy of a lot of people in the Legislature — of both parties — to extend term limits,” Gilliard said. “But it’s a killer.”

Storey said the California debate over redistricting, driven by its celebrity governor, will show how willing the public is to engage on the issue.

“Do real voters, do people in America, care?” Storey asked. “Are they aware? California is the real test for that. It costs a lot of money to get something on the ballot [in California] and it costs even more money to get it passed.”

But undeterred by the issue’s obscurity to average Americans, a new bipartisan group formed in Ohio last week to promote redistricting reform. Reform Ohio Now, led jointly by a former state Democratic chairman who is now a lobbyist in Columbus and the Republican head of a public employees union, is collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would create an independent commission to approve Congressional and legislative boundaries.

Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University and a spokesman for the group, predicted that while the partisan balance of the state’s Congressional delegation and Legislature would not change much if the measure were enacted, elections would be fairer — and would produce more centrist victors.

“Very few of our Congressional districts are competitive,” he said.

In 2004, all 18 Ohio incumbents were re-elected and Rep. Mike Oxley (R) fared “worst,” taking 59 percent of the vote in his west central Ohio district.

The group must collect 323,000 signatures by Aug. 10 to put the measure before voters in November. The proposal also calls for campaign finance reform for legislative elections and changes in the way state elections are administered.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) is expected to soon sign a bill to change the state’s Congressional maps in a way that should slightly benefit the GOP. The plan must also pass muster with the Justice Department. But Democrats, led by Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), have threatened to sue.

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