Redistricting may lack the sizzle of affirmative action or tax and budget issues for voters, but the process will play a critical role in shaping the political landscape lawmakers find themselves operating in over the next decade. In most states, the state legislatures elected on Nov. 7 will decide how congressional and legislative district lines are redrawn.
Also known as delimitation, redistricting has followed each decennial census since the formative days of the republic. The nuts and bolts of the process won't occur until 2001, after data from the U.S. Census Bureau has been digested and disseminated.
Population changes will be weighed against political considerations to determine whether a political district's contours need to be dramatically altered, adjusted slightly or left untouched As surely as the sun rises in the East, the state political party in power will redraw state and congressional political lines in a way that favors its disciples.
"Every 10 years after the census is taken, the 435 House districts are reallocated among the states, based on population," says Earl Black, professor of political science at Rice University. "Every state redraws the district lines for congressional seats, as well as state seats. Depending on the political compositions of the legislature, and the governor, you can have all kinds of political considerations brought to bear."
Those "political considerations" typically tinge the redrawing of political boundaries with drama, intrigue and gamesmanship.
"It's a very partisan process, so people sort of question whether this crucial political process is in the right hands," says Brian Weberg with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's sort of a fox guarding the hen house sort of thing."
The stakes are especially high for the Democrats, after GOP-influenced redistricting put them at a disadvantage in 1991.
The ripples were felt on the state level in New Jersey, where Democratic Sen. Carmen Orechio had his district erased from under him.
"It can get pretty nasty," New Jersey Democratic Senate Minority leader Richard Codey told the Newark Star Ledger last week. "Just one move of one town affects someone's political future."
New Jersey lawmakers will redraw 40 legislative districts.
Because the repositioning of district boundaries tends to be partisan, a number of states have taken the process out of lawmakers' hands. They include Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania and Washington.
Arizona is trying to accomplish this with Proposition 106, which asks voters whether redistricting should be decided by a nonpartisan commission, instead of by lawmakers.
If Arizonans vote yes, the state constitution will be rewritten to provide for the commission, which would be impaneled every 10 years before each U.S. Census.
But letting non-politicians handle redistricting is no guarantee the process will be unbiased, the NCSL's Weberg warns. "Even some of the commissions aren't exactly nonpartisan," Weberg says
In the United States, unlike most other countries, voters who disagree with how political lines have been redrawn can appeal to state and federal courts for relief.
This history of judicial activism stems from 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that voters could challenge redistricting plans in a case called Baker v. Carr. Up to that points, U.S. courts pretty much took a hands-off stance toward redistricting, and deferred to lawmakers instead.
Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 paved the way for redistricting suits based on race-based claims. Written to keep the voting rights of minorities from being diluted, the Act was amended in 1982 with language clearly stating that redistricting plans that erode minority voting strength are illegal.
Since 1993, the Supreme Court has heard a number of cases brought by voters disgruntled over districts that have been redrawn in a way that made minorities the majority.
Lower courts have also tried a number of these cases. On Monday, a federal appeals court revived a 1996 reverse discrimination lawsuit brought over a majority black subdistrict in Louisiana's 23rd Judicial District.
South Dakota's top court recently ruled that the Legislature violated the state constitution in 1996 when it wiped out a district designed to give American Indians a better shot at electing a House representative.
Virginia has been threatened with a lawsuit over a redrawing of political lines yet to take place. The state wants to use a numerical census, instead of a statistical sampling to come up with new legislative boundaries for 2001. The American Civil Liberties Union has indicated it will challenge Virginia's plan, which was approved by the General Assembly.