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.