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Politics and 2010 election results controlled the congressional redistricting process

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Although redistricting battles were finished a year ago, before the 2012 elections, the topic resurfaced with this month's U.S. House fight over the federal budget and Obamacare, which led to the 16-day shutdown of the federal government.

All sides agree that the Republican Party's power in Congress, and the fearlessness of some GOP members in pressing their ideals, is directly tied to the party's success in many states in controlling the drawing of new congressional boundary lines after the 2010 census.

And that clout came about via the ballot box: the huge Republican wave in the 2010 elections. It was Republican success in the 2010 mid-term elections that put the GOP in control of the U.S. House

That, in essence, is what happens in virtually all 50 states after every 10-year census, when new boundary lines are drawn for congressional districts. The party in control in each state calls the shots.

That is why, says political science professor Ken Warren, the huge Republican wave in the 2010 elections was so crucial nationwide -- and has had a long-lasting impact.

Republicans took control of legislatures and/or governors' mansions all over the country. That put them in the drivers’ seats when the new maps were drawn for most of the 435 U.S. House seats.

The result was evident in the 2012 elections, political experts agree, when Republicans retained control of the U.S. House even though Democratic candidates – as a whole – collected more votes.

Because of redistricting, a majority of the Republicans in the U.S. House hail from districts so heavily Republican that they face no election threat from Democrats -- only from fellow Republicans.

That's because most U.S. House seats were drawn to be safe GOP seats by massing large majorities of Republican voters. One byproduct: Many of the remaining Democratic seats were packed with Democratic voters, making those districts equally safe for that party.

“The Republicans after 2010 screwed the Democrats and it was upheld,’’ said Warren, who is considered a national expert on redistricting and just returned from England where he delivered a lecture on the topic.

Warren also has testified in a number of court cases in which accusers contended that the new maps had treated one political party unfairly. In most cases, including last year’s decision by the Missouri Supreme Court, the maps were upheld.

“The U.S. Supreme Court allows any gerrymandering as long as the districts are sufficient compact and contiguous,’’ Warren said. “They essentially defer to the proper (legislative) bodies…. They have been very, very, very deferential.”

In Missouri, Republicans have wielded a powerful hand in redistricting for decades because they controlled the governor’s mansion when new lines were drawn after the 1980 and 1990 census, and they took control of the state Senate right after the 2000 census. 

Missouri Republicans exercised even more power after the 2010 elections because the GOP had amassed huge majorities in the state House and Senate just as the redistricting process following the 2010 census was about to get underway.

It would take a constitutional amendment to change the process in Missouri, something both parties say is unlikely to happen.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., contended during last week’s Politically Speaking podcast that the partisan control of the redistricting process around the country has contributed to the polarization plaguing the U.S. House.

“This is what happens when you let members of Congress draw their own districts,” she said. “They’re going to want to draw them safely.”

Iowa and California experiments

At least two states – California and Iowa – sought new routes to draw their new maps by setting up allegedly nonpartisan commissions after the 2010 census.  Some had hoped the result would be more competitive congressional districts.

But the results haven’t borne that out. ProPublica, an independent nonprofit newsgathering organization, concluded in a 2011 investigation that the California redistricting effort had been controlled by Democrats – a charge also lobbed unsuccessfully in court by California Republicans.

Most of California’s 53 congressional districts are now safe Democratic seats.

And in Iowa, the new four-district map resulted in two Democratic-leaning seats and two that favor Republicans. Ed Cook, one of three people charged with drawing Iowa’s new map, said the aim was to draw four districts without taking politics into account.

“The basic concept is it’s a ‘blind process’ “ that focused solely on population and geography, Cook said. “We’re not trying to create competitive districts.”

“But the big difference is that in most other states, a key component of them drawing the lines is political information: 'What’s the partisan balance? Is this a good seat for our side or a bad seat or whatever?' That information we don’t have access to at all.”

“I’m just basically looking at population figures and county boundaries or city boundaries or precincts,” Cook said. “That’s it.”

Iowa’s 2012 election results showed that the results were still strongly partisan. The victors – two Democrats and two Republicans – each won by hefty margins, from 8 to 15 percentage points, over their challengers.

"On the congressional level, we still have a hard time defeating incumbents," Cook concluded. "But they’re under more stress than other states, just because the way we draw it isn’t meant to keep them there.”

In any case, Cook acknowledged that politics played a role in crafting his state's nonpartisan approach to drawing the new congressional map. "You’ve got to have buy-in from whoever’s the majority party," in the state legislature, he said, to go to a “new approach.”

Iowa’s homogenous population – the latest census figures show that 92.8 percent of its population is white – also make it virtually impossible for such an approach to be used in more racially diverse states, including neighboring Missouri, which has a larger African-American population of almost 12 percent.

Iowa's plan not seen as option in Missouri

The federal Voting Rights Act also governs the 1st congressional district in the St. Louis area, currently represented by U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. It is mandated by law to have a high percentage of minority voters.

The Missouri General Assembly, controlled by Republicans, governed the state’s redistricting process after the 2010 census and made no secret that the aim was to protect the state’s six incumbent Republican members of the U.S. House, especially after it became clear the state would lose one of its nine congressional seats.

The result was that then-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, was tossed from the 3rd District into the 1st District -- pitting two Democrats against each other. Carnahan lost to Clay in the 2012 Democratic primary, after a contest in which Carnahan accused Clay of colluding with legislative Republicans. Clay denied that was the case.

The courts agreed with Missouri Republicans that the map complied with Missouri's constitution -- with several judges also noting that politics played a strong role in crafting the boundaries. The repeated judicial point, however, was that partisanship wasn't unconstitutional, as long as it didn't go too far.

Missouri Democrats remain angry over the state’s current congressional makeup of six Republicans and two Democrats. But Republicans note that the state Supreme Court – dominated by Democratic appointees – upheld the new map.

Opponents of the new Missouri map had pointed, for example, to the "lobster claw" shape of the new 3rd District, which stretches from west of Jefferson City all the way east to Jefferson County, and then north to take in part of St. Charles County. The shape reflected the aim to avoid taking in too much Democratic territory. Current U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, had been consulted in its makeup.

Labor leader Jeff Mazur -- executive director of Council 72 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – sat on Missouri’s commission charged with drawing up the new state Senate districts. He examined the Iowa process to see if it might be a guide in helping draw more competitive legislative or congressional maps.

Mazur concluded that the Iowa process – focusing solely on population and geography -- wouldn’t have made much difference in Missouri when it came to drawing up new congressional districts. The state likely would still have ended up with six Republicans and two Democrats in Congress, he said, because most of Missouri’s Democrats are concentrated in the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas.

Warren, meanwhile, says the overall success of Republicans nationally in controlling the redistricting process after the 2010 census is why he puts little stock in polls indicating that Democrats might have a shot in reclaiming the U.S. House in 2014.

“I think it's nonsense,” Warren said. He contends that Democrats will likely have to wait until 2022, after the 2020 census.

And that’s only if Democrats do well in the 2020 elections -- and thus have a more powerful hand in drawing the new congressional maps.

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