Will Redistricting Be a Bloodbath for Democrats?

Republicans gain control of at least 19 Democratic-held state legislatures.

October 28, 2010, 7:40 PM

Nov. 4, 2010— -- Republicans gained a historic edge over Democrats in state legislature elections that will have national implications for years to come.

State legislatures in 44 states are responsible for one of the most important political processes: drawing district boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a process that usually triggers partisan bickering, the reigning party usually has the upper hand, especially if the governor is also from the same party and cannot veto the legislature's decisions.

Republicans took control of at least 19 Democratic-controlled state legislatures Tuesday and gained more than 650 seats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The last time Republicans saw such victories was in 1994, when they captured control of 20 state legislatures.

Republicans haven't controlled as many state legislatures since 1928.

Across the country, the map for state legislatures has turned noticeably red as Republicans now control 55 chambers, with Democrats at 38 and the remaining yet to be decided. At the beginning of this week, Democrats controlled 60 of the country's state legislative chambers and Republicans 36.

Tuesday also was a historic day for many state legislatures. In Minnesota, Republicans won the Senate for the first time ever, while in Alabama, they took control for the first time since reconstruction.

The gains were truly of "historic proportions," said Tim Storey, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, pointing out that the last time there was such a wave of state legislature switches was 1966.

"Everything moved in the direction of the GOP," Storey said. "I think Republicans are in the best position for redistricting they have been in since the modern redistricting era began in 1962. And they really have kind of a decided advantage now with the big wins."

The redistricting process that occurs once every decade when the Census is released usually tends to favor the party in power.

Redistricting is important because it not only determines the number of seats a state will get in the U.S. House of Representatives, it also creates boundaries for educational and public institutions.

When the process begins next year, it will mean a big boon for Republicans, who, in addition to state legislatures, also won key governorships.

GOP gubernatorial candidates won races where redistricting battles will be fought most heavily next year such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

All other signs also point to a victorious redistricting year for Republicans. In states like Florida, which is expected to gain two House seats, and Texas, which is projected to up its number by four, Republicans maintained their majorities.

Redistricting -- or "gerrymandering," as it's often called by critics because of a salamander-shaped district created by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 -- is a bitter political process with high stakes for both parties.

"You can win a number of seats just by controlling the boundary," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at The Brookings Institution.

In an effort to reform the system, California on Tuesday voted to pass a proposition that will test the power of independent commissions formed solely for the purpose of drawing district lines.

A ballot initiative in 2008 created the 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission that would be responsible for drawing up state legislative district lines. The commission would require nine votes to enact a plan, three each from Republicans, Democrats and third parties.

On Tuesday, Californians passed Proposition 20, which would expand the commission's task to include congressional district boundaries.

The commission, the first of its kind, would test how such a process works. But not everyone agrees that commissions are less partisan than state legislatures.

"The problem is no one has come up with the perfect way," Storey said. "Sometimes, they're called independent commissions, but they're not necessarily independent commissions. But they may actually be just as partisan as legislatures. And, in fact, they are likely to go to legislation and they are likely to end up losing redistricting plans."

Others say the potential for abuse is greater when members of state legislatures, with clearly vested political ideologies, are involved.

"Redistricting is, for better or for worse, a lot of political jousting," said Erika L. Wood, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. "Because those state legislatures hold so much control and because this is done in back rooms, if Republicans are in control they will draw maps that they think will benefit them in the next few years.

"There's always a lot of drama that happens with this," she added. "I've heard people call it a bloodbath."

The redistricting process in Texas in 2003 ended up embroiled in controversy and court delays that escalated all the way to the Supreme Court.

Former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority leader at the time, came under fire for his role in crafting a plan that Democrats charged was a way to ensure that Republicans would continue to stay in power in Washington.

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