The 2012 election is now less than a year away, but the congressional battle lines have yet to be drawn in some states.
Nineteen states are still entrenched in redistricting battles , as Democrats and Republicans duke it out in state legislatures, independent commissions and state and federal courts for district maps that could give them an edge in the next decade’s elections.
“If you really like politics, this is really the heart of it,” said David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “There is nothing more political – Democrat or Republican – than redistricting.”
But despite Republicans’ having control of most state legislatures after the 2010 elections, neither party is expected to pick up significantly more seats because of the newly drawn district lines that are mandated every decade to reflect shifting populations in the Census.
“It’s really, you could say, surprising because almost two-thirds of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans, but so far it looks like a wash,” said Steve Bickerstaff, a redistricting expert and adjunct professor at the University of Texas Law School.
But both parties are still claiming victory when it comes to redistricting.
“Far from being blown out as the Republicans announced, we have exceeded expectations on redistricting,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel of New York said last week. “And at the end of the day, the worst case for us will be a wash and the best case is potentially coming out with a handful of districts.”
Republican State Leadership Committee consultant Tom Hofeller said the GOP could still come out on top as the final 40 percent of states finalize their maps.
“”Even though the final outcome could vary as much as eight to 10 seats, you still need to remember that redistricting is a game of margins,” Hofeller said. “Because of the fact that we had control in states that were drawing 200 districts and Democrats only had control of states that were drawing 44 districts, I think we’ll do better around those margins.”
Beyond the spin rooms, political parties have to toe a fine line when redrawing the district maps, Bickerstaff said. They can either create a few districts that are staunchly supportive, or a greater number of districts that lean less definitively in their favor.
“If you try to win too many districts for your party, then all you need is a slight shift in the way people are voting and you lose them all,” Bickerstaff said.
He argued that redistricting is not as important as some people make it out to be because there are limits to how much influence one party can wield over the process.
“As long as you have one person, one vote, however bizarre the districts may look, the reality is you’re working with a zero sum,” Bickerstaff said.
One of the fiercest redistricting battles in the country is playing out in Arizona, which gained one seat largely because of growth in its Hispanic population.
After the state’s independent commission, which is tasked with creating the new district lines, proposed a map that made some districts more competitive for Democrats, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer led a successful charge to oust the commission’s chairwoman.
“In Arizona, they really went to the extreme,” Berman said. “It is conceived here really as a power play with the Republican party trying to draw the lines the way they want.”
And Democrats are nothing short of outraged over the ouster. Israel said that Arizonans should “consider impeaching” Brewer because of the ordeal.
“We will push every button, we will use every strategy, we will appeal to any fair court to redress this trampling of a fair and independent process,” Israel said. “Instead of impeaching the highly regarded, truly independent leader of that body, that Republicans and Democrats agreed upon, Gov. Brewer ought to think about impeaching herself.”
Consequentially, Arizona’s maps are far from established, and will likely be challenged in court once they are drawn.
At least four states’ maps are already caught up in court challenges, which is common during the redistricting process.
In Texas, which, with four additional seats, gained more representatives than any other state, redistricting maps have been challenged in court every decade for the past half century, Bickerstaff said.
This year, Democratic and Latino groups are claiming that the Republican-controlled Legislature did not give Hispanics fair representation in the four new districts, despite Hispanics’ accounting for the vast majority of the state’s population growth.
As the lines are currently drawn, all four of the new seats will likely go to Republicans. To comply with federal laws, the courts could redraw two of those districts to include more Hispanics, thereby tipping them Democratic, Bickerstaff said.
Courts in Texas and across the country have mere months to make any adjustments to the district lines, because each state’s map has to be finalized before that state’s primary election. The first primaries begin in January.
“Historically, at least half of the states will see lawsuits and usually about two-thirds of your major states will see them almost every time,” Bickerstaff said. “As long as you have certain legal requirements, there is not a great deal that either party can do.”