The Impact of Redistricting on 2012

Member Group : Salena Zito

Add redistricting as a drag on Democrats’ march to win back the U.S. House in 2012.

It’s hard to recruit new House candidates or fund-raise for incumbents if you don’t know what House districts will look like.

Redrawing of states’ House districts follows reapportionment, which allocates congressional seats to states. The latter occurred in December, when the Census Bureau revealed state population totals and how many House seats (and Electoral College votes) each state will have for the next decade.

"Redistricting is a multi-year nerd fest for politicians, pundits, academics, lawyers, demographers, cartographers, and now even some hobbyists," says Dave Wasserman, the Cook Political Report’s House editor.

This time, "12 House seats switched states, with 10 states losing seats and eight states gaining," says Wasserman, author of a nerdy little book, "Better Know a District."

And unlike some democracies where redistricting is a simple procedure, in America, it can be a highly contentious affair in which politicians "gerrymander" boundaries for partisan and personal advantage, he explains.

His book — awash in statistics, scenarios and maps — is not just for political junkies to run home with and open, like kids with Sears Christmas catalogs. House expert Isaac Wood of the University of Virginia Center for Politics recommends it for even the casual reader.

Redistricting power rests with state legislatures. Thanks to 2010’s midterm elections, Republicans hold more than 50 percent of state legislative seats, giving them their best position to cut and paste lines since 1928.

As a result of last year’s power switch, 10 to 20 House seats likely will remain in GOP hands or flip from Democrats in the next two or three election cycles.

Despite unions pushing for recall elections of GOP state senators in Wisconsin, Republicans there have skirted a crisis and will finish redistricting before any potential Statehouse power switch.

All is not rosy for the GOP, however.

In Illinois, which is losing one U.S. House seat, Democrats have carved up six Republican districts and hope to elect five new Democrats. In California, a new "citizen-run" process could make three or four Republican-leaning seats into opportunities for Democrats.

Yet Republicans could carve three North Carolina Democrats out of their seats and eliminate Democrat districts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Missouri.
Every state (except the seven with a single House seat each) will redistrict. Eight have finished, leaving 35 to go.

There’s no firm timeline, according to Wasserman, because "every state has its own set of candidate-filing deadlines." The process will be more or less complete — save for a few lawsuits — by mid-2012.

In 2010, Republicans won an impressive 12-7 shift in battleground Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation. Look for redistricting to protect that advantage, most likely by merging Democrats into heavily Republican districts.
That means, for example, taking Democrat-heavy Scranton out of Democrat-leaning District 11, now held by Republican Lou Barletta, and adding it to GOP-heavy District 10, held by Republican Tom Marino, ensuring both freshmen’s re-election.

One quirk this time: More voters identify themselves as independents, not Republicans or Democrats, and switch parties between elections.

That means "the effects of gerrymandering may now only be felt for an election or two … and not for the entire 10 years," says political scientist Jeff Brauer. That "certainly was one factor" in the past decade’s shifts in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, he adds.

Wood says average citizens should pay attention to redistricting: "They are often confused to find that they are in a new district, with a new representative, and are even more baffled when they see that their neighbor is no longer in the same district they are."

Wasserman says redistricting technology has evolved from giant maps laid on gymnasium floors in the 1970s to today’s apps.

"So in James Carville-Mary Matalin type households," he jokes, referring to a prominent, politically split family, "mapmakers are being tempted to split the living room from the kitchen."

Salena Zito
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter