Looming battles over the re-drawing of congressional district lines are raising the stakes of elections nation-wide, and are pushing party leaders to refocus last-minute resources as they hope to win more control over the once-a-decade redistricting process.
With roughly a third of states expected to either gain or lose a member of Congress after this year's census, redistricting amounts to a stealth issue in the 2010 elections -- one with long-lasting consequences for party control of Congress. It's taken on an added political dimension this time around, after the unusual mid-decade redistricting in Texas ended the careers of five Democratic House members in 2004.
The likely changes in congressional representation are intensifying national attention on gubernatorial and state legislative contests in states such as Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The first two states are poised to be big winners in the reapportionment of House districts, while the latter two appear likely to lose seats.
Beyond that, ballot initiatives in several states -- most notably California and Florida -- could have long-lasting implications on how new voting districts are drawn in 2011 and beyond.
"It's really about power and who has it -- and the lengths that they're willing to go to keep people from getting it," said Jeff Reichert, a filmmaker who's out with a new documentary, "Gerrymandering," that explores the politicization of the redistricting process.
"Aside from outright fraud, this is the best way to control elections that you can," Reichert said.
Gerrymandering is as old as the nation itself. Elbridge Gerry, who would go on to become the nation's fifth vice president, gave the term its name as governor of Massachusetts in 1812. Decades earlier, Patrick Henry famously drew Virginia's congressional districts to favor James Monroe over James Madison. (Madison won anyway.)
But the process has become hyper-politicized with the advent of precise mapping software that allow lawmakers to draw districts according to any specifications they wish, and as both parties learn of the potential gains of carving safe seats.
Though Americans have rarely voiced such extreme disapproval of Congress as they are this year, the result is not in question in some two-thirds of House races -- largely because of the way their districts are drawn.
Slate.com's list of the 20 most gerrymandered congressional districts in the nation looks like a collection of splotches, serpents, and coffee stains.
California's map leaves safe Democrats residing alongside even safer Republicans.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., represents a ribbon of the Chicago area connected primarily by ethnicity. In Arizona, Republican Rep. Trent Franks' traverses the Grand Canyon -- via a river. In Florida, the district of Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown at one point travels along the route of a power line.
After the 2000 census, Democrats who controlled the State House in Maryland shook up a map that was helping send four Democrats and four Republicans to Congress. They spread out Democrats among the districts; now, the delegation has seven Democrats and only one Republican.
The state's third congressional district is squeezed to the width of a single block inside of Baltimore. Traversing the serpentine path of the district of Rep. John Sarbanes', D-Md., would require swimming through Baltimore Harbor.
The most famous recent example of politically minded district-drawing came last decade in Texas. The Lone Star State had already created new House districts after the 2000 Census, and 17 of the state's 32 House members were Democrats.
But when Republicans took control of the state house, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay saw an opportunity. Republicans rammed through a new redistricting plan, blowing up the old map to instead favor Republicans, even as Democratic lawmakers literally fled the state in protest.
"You can't get much more extreme than that to take one existing district and chop it into five pieces," said former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who was one of five Texas Democrats to lose their seats -- and their jobs -- under DeLay's plan. "It is crass political motivation."
Texas stands to add perhaps four House seats after this year's census, according to a recent report from Election Data Services. That's galvanized Democratic interest in the governor's race -- where Democrats think they have a chance to defeat Republican Gov. Rick Perry -- plus state House races, with Democrats within striking distance of taking back the majority.
Florida stands to gain two House seats, while Ohio appears likely to lose two. That means the party in power in the state legislature and the governor's office will have big opportunities to favor their party over the next decade.
"We understand the stakes, and it definitely affects the way resources are allocated," said Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
One offshoot of gerrymandering: partisan polarization. Members of Congress are less likely to compromise with the other party when they know their constituents are politically homogeneous, Frost said.
"It polarizes the two parties the more safe districts you have," he said. "And the more competitive districts you have, probably the more chance there is for some bipartisanship in Congress."
Seven states take redistricting out of the hands of state lawmakers, with independent commissions charged with spreading voters into districts equitably. And two of the nation's largest states could dramatically change the way they re-draw districts after this year's elections, with potentially long-lasting implications.
In Florida, a pair of state constitutional amendments would require the legislature to redraw district boundaries with "fairness," in a manner such that they "may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party."
The measure is being backed by good-government groups and powerful Democratic-aligned interests. But critics contend that the vague language is a recipe for perpetual gridlock and legal challenges that could leave voting districts carved up by the Justice Department and the courts.
In California, a ballot initiative would put a citizens' commission in charge of drawing congressional districts, as is the case now with state legislative lines. Outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., is among the initiative's highest-profile backers.
"Gerrymandering has created a dysfunction in the Capitol," Schwarzenegger says in Reichert's new documentary. "The legislators have picked the voters rather than the voters picking the politicians."