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Partisan districting makes Congress takeover tougher

Michigan’s economy is in bad shape. But the state’s members of Congress are not expected to face much of a backlash in next month’s elections, since Michigan is a prime example of how districts can be shaped to concentrate a party’s supporters.

Gerrymandering, as the practice is called, can make some incumbents feel safe even in a campaign year soured by the Iraq war, corruption scandals and pockets of economic misery. Drawing congressional district lines to protect incumbents makes it even harder for Democrats to pick up the 15 seats they need to capture control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 7 election.

“It is in doubt because state and national polls assume that Democrats are spread evenly among congressional districts instead of being packed into a few districts,” said pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC-MRA in Lansing, Michigan.

For example, in Michigan there are not many competitive races among the Midwestern state’s congressional delegation, even in the eight House districts that rank among the worst in the country in terms of declining income, rising poverty and surging unemployment.

If people truly voted their pocketbook, the lawmakers who represent those districts — four Democrats and four Republicans — ought to be nervous heading into the Nov. 7 elections. But seven of those incumbents are virtually assured of another term. The other lost a Republican primary in a safe Republican district.

“The Republicans did a whale of a good gerrymandering job,” says John R. Chamberlin, a University of Michigan political scientist.

Republicans controlled the process of drawing new congressional lines in most states following the 2000 census, and they did a good packing Democrats into as few districts as possible, Sarpolus said. The Republicans refer to it as their “firewall” against losing the majority.

“Everyone assumes that the number of seats available are the same as in 1994,” said Sarpolus, referring to the election in which Republicans gained 52 seats, taking control of the House.

States are required to redraw the boundaries of congressional districts after every 10-year census to account for population changes. Some states, including Texas and Georgia, have done it mid-decade to capitalize on Republican takeovers of the state legislature.

Gerrymandering — the art of drawing odd-shaped legislative districts to favor the political party in power — has been around since the early 1800s, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry drew a politically friendly district that looked like a salamander.

Both parties do it in states where they control the line-drawing. When the parties share power, they sometimes get together to protect incumbents. But today’s practitioners say new computer technology helps them draw favorable districts better than ever.

“It’s more exact,” said Kimball Brace of Election Data Services, a Washington company that specializes in drawing political boundaries.

As recently as 1970, district maps were drawn on paper. In the 1980s, Brace said he could use computers to generate about 10 different district scenarios for a state. After the 2000 census, he could generate 1,000 of them, using detailed socio-economic data and results from hundreds of elections in every precinct.

“You could see the magnitude of shifting small areas from one district to another,” Brace said.

The Supreme Court has restricted states from drawing districts that dilute the influence of minority voters, but states have a lot of freedom to gerrymander based on politics, said James J. Brudney, a law professor at Ohio State University.

“What the parties are doing to privilege themselves and to privilege incumbents is something that the court has been singularly unwilling to interfere with,” Brudney said.

Nationally, the war in Iraq is overshadowing pocketbook issues this election season. Nevertheless, 88 percent of likely voters said the economy was an important issue in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted this month.

Apparently, it is not important enough to affect congressional races in many districts. The AP identified the 50 House districts that fared the worst from 2000 to 2005 in terms of declining incomes, rising poverty and increasing unemployment. Only seven are on anybody’s list of competitive House races, and only four are considered toss-ups.

The 50 districts were split evenly among Democratic and Republican incumbents. Among the worst is a district in Detroit represented by Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democrat.

Wracked by a struggling automobile industry, the district’s poverty rate is approaching 30 percent. Household incomes dropped nearly 17 percent from 1999 to 2005, while the unemployment rate has topped 17 percent.

Kilpatrick, a five-term incumbent, is running unopposed on Nov. 7. Why should the Republicans bother? President George W. Bush received just 19 percent of the vote in the district both times he ran for president.

Kilpatrick’s district is 60 percent black. The creation of black districts, in general, has helped black politicians win election to Congress. But when those districts are packed with large majorities of Democrats, it can leave other districts more Republican.

Kilpatrick blames gerrymandering for flipping Michigan’s congressional delegation from a 9-7 Democratic majority in 2000 to a 9-6 Republican majority today (the state lost a seat after the 2000 census). She blames Republicans for her district’s economic woes, saying the Bush administration’s trade and economic policies have hurt manufacturing.

“I do all that I can,” Kilpatrick said in an interview. But, she added, “We don’t control the agenda.”

Across the state, Republican Vernon Ehlers’ district, which includes Grand Rapids, has fared a little better. Household incomes dropped 13.5 percent from 1999 to 2005, while unemployment increased from 4.4 percent to 7.7 percent and the poverty rate increased from 8.6 percent to just above 12 percent.

Ehlers, a seven-term incumbent, won with 67 percent of the vote in 2004. This year, he has a 19-to-1 fundraising advantage over his Democratic opponent, James Rinck.

“Michigan is dead last in the country in terms of job production and unemployment,” Ehlers said, only slightly overstating the state’s unemployment ranking.

But, he said, voters “don’t blame me for it. They tend to blame the president or the governor, or both.”

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