By any political measure, the 2006 battle for control of the House of Representatives should be a dramatic contest. The majority party, which has been secure in its power for a decade, has been battered by a round of indictments, rising gasoline prices and controversy over the administration's decision to wage war in Iraq. The minority is aggressively recruiting candidates, raising massive amounts of money and launching daily attacks on its adversary.
But no need to hold your breath to find out the outcome of this epic struggle. The reason: The electoral system is rigged.
Not rigged in the old-fashioned, ballot-stuffing sort of way. Rigged in the sense that operatives in both parties have become so adept at drawing congressional districts that most House seats aren't even up for grabs nowadays. Redistricting -- the once-a-decade process in which each state redraws House seats based on the most recent U.S. Census data -- has become more influential in determining congressional races than advertising, political speechifying or grass-roots activism. By segregating voters according to party loyalty, redistricting has insulated incumbents of both parties and dulled competition.
Just last week voters in California and Ohio were given a chance to overhaul their redistricting systems, and in both states they opted not to do it. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, proposed creating a three-member panel of retired judges to revise the congressional map; Ohio Democrats led a campaign to create an independent citizens' commission that would examine maps creating competitive congressional districts submitted by anyone in the state.
Given that House elections, with incumbent reelection rates reaching 98 percent, are starting to take on all the suspense of the contests for the old Soviet Union's central committee, you'd think that Americans would rush to embrace reforms and inject some healthy competition into U.S. politics. But both proposals lost badly on Tuesday. In California, voters rejected the proposition 59 to 41 percent. Ohio's redistricting ballot initiative fared even worse, losing 70 to 30 percent.
"No, we're not going to demand a recount," quipped Keary McCarthy, spokesman for Reform Ohio Now, which backed the idea of an independent redistricting commission.
Two factors doomed the pair of reform initiatives: Most voters seemed to have had a hard time deciding whether redistricting really matters, and those who did, saw it as boosting one party at the other's expense. Thus voters divided along party lines. Californians in counties that favored John Kerry a year ago opposed Proposition 77 by a wide margin of 66 to 34 percent, according to an analysis of voting data by election lawyer Sam Hirsch. In Ohio, counties that backed George W. Bush opposed that state's initiative 76 to 24 percent. "It was partisan and special-interest- driven," says Ohio First spokesman David Hopcraft, whose Republican-affiliated group opposed the state's redistricting measure. "I'm not sure that Ohio voters felt there was a problem."
But there is a problem, and it's threatening to ossify the American political system. In states across the country, the party in power -- often the Republicans, but sometimes the Democrats -- has ensured that it can retain control by creating seats so politically skewed that the opposition doesn't have a shot at unseating the incumbent. This sort of "gerrymandering," a nickname that stems from an egregious bit of line-drawing in the early 1800s that created a district resembling a salamander, has undermined Americans' ability to choose whom they send to Washington.
The result? Stuart Rothenberg, a leading analyst of congressional races, estimates that there are only 25 "truly competitive contests" in the House, out of 435 races. Cook Political Report House editor Amy Walter, another top analyst, puts the number at 28.
In two of the nation's largest states -- California and Illinois -- the two parties joined together at the start of the decade to protect all incumbents in bipartisan gerrymanders. In 2003 then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay secured a rare mid-decade redistricting that cost five Texas House Democrats their jobs. Now those three states combined, which account for nearly a quarter of the entire House, boast only five competitive races in 2006.
If voters aren't pushing for a change in the system, it's hard to expect members of Congress to volunteer to give themselves tougher competition. "You're asking people to give up an enormous amount of power," says Tennessee Rep. John Tanner, a centrist Democrat who is serving his ninth term. "It's going to have to come from the outside."
Tanner, who introduced legislation in May that would require each state to create an independent redistricting commission of at least five members to draw a state's congressional map just once a decade, says the question of redistricting "goes to the very essence of our democracy," because as currently practiced it liberates ideological extremists on both the left and the right from the need to appeal to the political center.
The status quo, he adds, "produces public officeholders who do not have a broad sense of the public welfare, because it's all party politics that determines who comes here. As the middle shrinks, it becomes harder for Congress to respond to the real problems of the country."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, has just introduced a competing measure that is similar to Tanner's but promotes plans that maximize minority representation and recognizes that voters live in "communities of interest" based on their common socioeconomic status, language and education.
Both plans have been mainly embraced by Democrats -- Tanner's has two Republican co-sponsors, Lofgren's has none -- in part because national Democrats have the most to gain from redistricting reform.
Part of what makes the redistricting issue so tricky is that it is linked to the effort to boost minority representation in Congress. Hirsch, an attorney at the Chicago-based law firm Jenner & Block who has represented Democrats in several redistricting cases, calculated a few years ago that the 27 most politically lopsided districts in the country -- where 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore won at least 77.7 percent of the majority party vote -- are Democratic. Almost all of them have African American or Latino representatives. But that also packs Democratic voters into electoral ghettoes, making other districts safer for Republicans.
Hirsch has his own redistricting reform plan, which would mandate an 11-member independent commission for each state with a powerful independent tie-breaker as chairman who would push for plans that emphasize competitiveness and partisan fairness. "Without clear, tough rules ensuring fairness, commissions will do no better than the politicians have done, and we'll get maps nearly as rotten as the ones we have now," Hirsch says.
Proponents of redistricting reform have not given up hope. Former representative David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, is championing new redistricting standards at the Council for Excellence in Government. He says that he and his allies will wage a state-by-state campaign that will not benefit one party over the other. "For this to be a successful reform movement, and it's going to be hard, it has to be clinically nonpartisan," Skaggs says.
In the meantime, however, congressional politics experts like Walter see redistricting as a key factor in helping buttress the Republicans' majority. Walter compared it to a levee the GOP has built to protect its hold on power, which is suddenly under assault from a serious Democratic storm.
"We've never seen this levee system tested," she says. "There's never been a Category 5 hurricane since the Republicans have been in the majority. The question is, what does it take to break down this levee, if you're a Democrat?"
Last week's double blow to redistricting reform in California and Ohio isn't encouraging. National pollster Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist who conducted polling on California's Proposition 77, says the two initiatives didn't resonate with voters. "They needed to be defined as change, not a political power play," Lake says. "It's tough to get such a technical issue defined for the public."
Or, as Rothenberg put it, "It's just not as sexy or easy to explain as, 'Are you for or against prescription drugs, equal rights, or a beer tax?' " Just because it's hard to explain, however, doesn't mean it's not worth promoting. Few people would question that in the post-Watergate election of 1974 and again in the 1994 Republican Revolution, the American public decided it wasn't happy with its representation in Washington. The question is whether it will be able to make that choice again in 2006, or ever.
Juliet Eilperin is a reporter on The Post's national staff and author of the forthcoming book, "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives" (Rowman & Littlefield).