Redistricting reform pushed ahead of U.S. Census

* In most states, legislatures draw voting districts

* Critics say practice locks in power for incumbents

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK, June 14 (BestGrowthStock) – A practice in many U.S.
states of allowing legislatures to redraw voting district lines
to keep pace with population shifts allows politicians to hold
onto power artificially, government watchdog groups say.

Bills have been introduced in several such states to create
independent commissions to oversee redistricting instead,
beginning in 2011 after the once-a-decade U.S. census count.

“American democracy has an incumbent-protection plan,” said
New York Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, the sponsor of such a
bill. “The redistricting process often undermines the ability
of outsiders to effectively compete for political office.

“If you draw the lines right, you can do a really good job
of locking in power for the course of a decade,” he said.

A redistricting bill in New York has gained the support of
Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Rick Lazio, the leading
candidates for governor, but not the legislature.

The voting-district system divides up states by population,
as counted by the census, and voters choose congressional and
state-level candidates based on the district where they live.

New York Senate President Malcolm Smith was quoted as
saying Democrats would “draw the lines so that Republicans will
be in oblivion in the state of New York for the next 20 years.”

He later said the remark was taken out of context.

The practice known as gerrymandering enables the ruling
political party to carve up a block of voters likely to support
a rival party or candidate and even draw an opponent out of the
district. It often was used to split racial or ethnic
communities to weaken their political influence.

The word gerrymander is derived from Elbridge Gerry, who as
Massachusetts governor redistricted to keep his party in power
in 1812, and “salamander” to reflect the peculiar shapes many
gerrymandered districts resemble on a map.

In Texas, Republicans picked up six U.S. congressional
seats after the legislature redrew the map in 2003. In
California, voters approved an independent redistricting panel
in 2008 that will redraw district lines in 2011.

AN UPHILL BATTLE

Elsewhere, backers say they face an uphill battle since
politicians are unlikely to give up a built-in advantage.

For Jeffries, redistricting is personal. Following his
first campaign in 2000 — when he lost but surprised an
incumbent with a strong showing — Jeffries’ Brooklyn home was
drawn out of the district, making him ineligible to run. He had
to move his family several blocks back into the district in
order to run again, and he won seven years later.

“Brooklyn politics can be pretty rough, but that move was
gangster,” Jeffries says in a documentary, “Gerrymander,” by
Jeff Reichert, that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in
New York.

Republicans have suffered similar fates. After the
Democratic-controlled New York assembly drew maps cutting
Republican Philip Boyle out of his own district, he had to sell
his house and move back into the district.

“The voters should choose their legislators, not the
legislators choosing their voters,” said Susan Lerner, head of
Common Cause New York, a watchdog group that supports an
independent commission. She concedes it is “an uphill battle.”

Another controversial aspect is what’s known as
prison-based gerrymandering, the practice of counting prisoners
in their jail cells rather than their last known addresses.

The practice can pad the population of rural districts,
where prisons are often housed, at the expense of urban
districts, where most crime is committed.

In April, Maryland became the first state to count
prisoners in their last known address. Rhode Island and New
York also are currently considering bills to end the practice.

In Illinois, 60 percent of prisoners are from the Chicago
area, yet 99 percent are counted elsewhere, according to the
Prison Policy Initiative, a group that opposes the practice. In
New York, it enabled the legislature to add a new senate
district in a conservative upstate region that helped give
Republicans a Senate majority for decades.

Investing Research

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Walsh)

Redistricting reform pushed ahead of U.S. Census