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Change the System

We’re still two-plus years away from the 2010 Census and four years away from the time when state legislatures start drawing new Congressional district boundaries. It’s too early to think about redistricting, right?

Wrong. It’s already being thought about, especially in Rust Belt states that are likely to lose House seats and Sun Belt states likely to gain — and now is precisely the time when political reformers should be mobilizing at the state and national level to reform the process in order to limit partisan gerrymandering and combat the increasing polarization of American politics.

Congress could make the whole process simple by passing legislation proposed by Reps. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) requiring the states to set up independent commissions to redraw district boundaries on a nonpartisan, competitive basis and ban mid-decade redistricting.

As the three Members wrote in an appeal for hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, “Since the time of Elbridge Gerry [governor of Massachusetts from 1810-1812], state legislatures have used their power to draw Congressional maps for partisan gain.

“Improvements in technology and an increasing willingness to participate in ‘mid-decade redistricting’ have taken the gerrymandering process to new extremes. As a result, large numbers of voters are being marginalized while the climate in Washington, D.C., has become more polarized.”

It’s true that in 2006 enough districts around the country were competitive to allow Democrats to wrest control of the House from Republicans. According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, 34 House races were decided by margins of 5 points or less, more than in 2002 and 2004 combined. Still, 317 seats were decided by margins of more than 20 points, 95 of them by more than 40 points.

The sophisticated drawing of district maps to create “safe” seats for one party or another is not entirely responsible for America’s polarized politics. Self-“sorting” — the tendency of people to live among those who are politically and culturally like themselves — also has contributed to the process. But gerrymandering of districts institutionalizes it, ensuring that the only election contest a Member might face is from a more liberal or more conservative primary opponent.

In June, reformist Members and the University of Southern California launched a Web site, which allows citizens to play modern-day Elbridge Gerrys and carve up fictional states into noncompetitive districts — and also to see how different and fairer the process might be if lines were drawn on a nonpartisan basis.

Despite the June appeal, no hearings have yet been held or scheduled by the Judiciary Committee. A Tanner aide said that “there’s been a little more interest from leadership” this year than in past Republican-run Congresses. We hope that’s right — and that the interest will lead to action. The one good thing about starting this early is that no one can be sure which party will control various state legislatures and governorships in 2012. The closer we get to the census, the harder reform will be.

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