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Has Gerrymandering Gone Too Far?

With Congress almost evenly divided, both parties are more willing than ever to test the limits of the law to gain ground. For House Republicans, that means leaning on friendly state legislatures to redraw the lines of congressional districts and create safe GOP havens. It's a brutally efficient approach: Last year in Pennsylvania, for example, Republicans wiped out four Democratic districts. And GOP leaders elsewhere are not content to wait until after the next census in 2010 to play the gerrymander card. Newly elected Republican majorities in Texas and Colorado this year took the unusual step of re-redistricting -- changing lines already ratified by the courts.

With redistricting disputes creating an ever more vicious political jungle, these fights are likely to land in the U.S. Supreme Court, which will be asked to limit how and when congressional lines are drawn. The Colorado Supreme Court fired a warning shot on Dec. 1, when it negated a GOP plan to turn two swing districts into Republican bastions. Its reasoning: The state constitution permits redistricting only once every 10 years, not at the whim of the party in power.

Damn the Census

That's an argument also being used by Texas Democrats. Republicans, taking advantage of their new statehouse majority, last summer broke with the tradition of redistricting only after a census. They designed a new map to topple seven Democratic congressional incumbents -- a partisan shift unmatched in the annals of gerrymandering. On Dec. 11, a three-judge federal panel will hear the case in Austin. That kind of open-ended redistricting "leads to chaos," says Representative Martin Frost (D-Tex.), whose seat was transformed into a GOP stronghold.

Even before the Texas and Colorado disputes wind their way to the high court, the justices are preparing to weigh in on redistricting shenanigans. On Dec. 8, the Supreme Court will hear a Democratic complaint that some of Pennsylvania's districts were illegally drawn for the sole purpose of electing GOP candidates. The case has potential to change the political landscape, literally and legally. The court long ago ruled that racial gerrymandering violates the Constitution, but it has never limited partisan gamesmanship.

Republicans accuse Democrats of being sore losers. "What the other side calls an abuse is strictly in the eyes of the beholder," says Colorado Senate President John Andrews, a suburban Denver Republican who says legislators have the "right and responsibility" to map congressional districts.

The GOP may find that two can play this game. If it gets away with its plans in Texas and Colorado, Democrats threaten to redraw maps in Illinois and New Mexico, where they control the legislatures. Because the parties are so evenly matched, "there's a willingness to fight fiercely, and perhaps even a bit dirty, for these things," says David Lublin, an associate professor of government at American University.

States such as Iowa, Washington, and New Jersey try to avoid partisan bloodletting by having blue-ribbon panels -- not lawmakers -- draw district lines once a decade. But such a sensible approach is unlikely to be widely adopted until the Supreme Court answers the question: When does partisanship go too far? Republicans were outmaneuvered when Democrats found a way around strict campaign fund-raising limits passed last year. Now a group of GOP strategists is fighting back. Former Reagan and Bush I officials Frank J. Donatelli, George J. Terwilliger III, and Craig Shirley have established Americans for a Better Country (ABC), which says it will mimic the fund-raising tactics of America Votes, America Coming Together, and other left-leaning groups that are raking in unregulated cash. The Democratic groups have a leg up -- thanks to $10 million in seed money from billionaire financier George Soros -- so the GOPers' first move is to try to shut down their liberal rivals. In mid-November, ABC asked the Federal Election Commission to decide whether partisan activities such as those of America Votes are legal. But if the FEC blesses the soft-money groups, ABC will raise "as much money as we legally can" to run ads and mobilize voters next year, Shirley says. The fast-growing popularity of Internet phone-calling has regulators scrambling. Some states want to assess phone-related charges on the Web-based services, but Congress could block them. The Federal Communications Commission is likely to adopt a lighter touch. FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, who held a Dec. 1 hearing, will probably push the new providers to offer 911 services, pay for universal phone-access subsidies, and give the FBI wiretapping capabilities.

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