Better boundaries

Sunday, January 2, 2011

THE NEW CENSUS figures are out and with them the prospect of the decennial political mischief known as congressional redistricting. Expecting partisan lawmakers and governors to look at the possibility of picking up congressional seats for their parties and eschew the opportunity is like asking a hungry lion to look at a tasty gazelle and say, "No, thanks." It's not going to happen. The stakes are too high, and the technology too refined, for politicians not to seize the chance to gerrymander district lines to their distinct partisan advantage.

This redistricting cycle is especially appetizing for Republicans, who in November won nearly 700 state legislative seats previously held by Democrats and now control both state houses and the governorship in 20 states, compared with 10 for Democrats. These include Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which are set to lose congressional seats and where, presumably, Democrats have the most to fear.

Since the last census there has been a trend, albeit less robust than we would like, to end the noxious practice of letting politicians choose their voters rather than the other way around. In November's elections, voters in California and Florida approved redistricting reform measures. In California, the responsibilities of the nonpartisan commission charged with drawing state legislative lines were expanded to include congressional redistricting. In Florida, voters approved a constitutional amendment providing that districts "may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party." These efforts follow earlier reforms in states such as Arizona, where an independent commission draws district lines, and Iowa, where the state legislature takes an up-or-down vote on a plan created by a nonpartisan agency. In some states, such as Pennsylvania, the cumbersome constitutional amendment process means that it is too late to improve redistricting methods for this round. Elsewhere, however, there may be time for change. In Texas, the biggest winner of the latest census numbers, with four new congressional seats, Republican state Sen. Jeff Wentworth has been pushing for congressional redistricting reform since 1993; he has once again filed a measure to take redistricting out of the hands of legislators.

Closer to home, it is time for Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to make good on his campaign promise to form a bipartisan redistricting commission. The Democratic-controlled state Senate passed such a measure last year, but it died in a party-line vote in the Republican-dominated House, without a peep of gubernatorial protest. A good new year's resolution for Mr. McDonnell in 2011 would be to do what he promised in 2009.

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