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Stakes High In Redistricting Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing in on redrawn congressional maps that could solidify Republican control of the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future. If Republican-controlled redistricting is upheld, the current 229 to 206 Republican majority in the House would become nearly insurmountable for Democrats.

The high court will decide whether Republican legislators in Pennsylvania went too far when they redrew the state's congressional districts in 2001. Although the state has nearly 500,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, after a Republican-controlled redistricting, 12 Republicans and just seven Democrats were elected to Congress.

This case is part of a nationwide struggle over Republican-controlled redistricting. In December, the Colorado Supreme Court threw out a redistricting plan adopted by the Republican-led state legislature earlier this year because the state's constitution limits redistricting to the year following a census. Colorado Republicans maintain that the court's ruling subverts the will of the people who elected the legislature. They have appealed to the federal court and are ready to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Texas has witnessed the most contentious battle over U.S. congressional districts. Democratic state legislators twice decamped from the state to prevent their Republican colleagues from achieving a quorum and pushing through a highly partisan redistricting plan. A federal court has upheld the plan's legality and the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Democrats currently hold a 17–to–15 majority in the state's congressional delegation. With the new district boundaries in place, Democrats will likely lose five seats and another three will be in jeopardy. Latino groups are set to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds of racial discrimination.

Both parties have manipulated redistricting in the past, but these efforts are traditionally limited to the year following a census. Republicans have been pushing redistricting plans several years after the census to take advantage of their gains in the 2002 election. New computer software, which can predict voting patterns down to the street level, makes redistricting an even more precise tool for undercutting one's political opponents.

Only four challengers defeated incumbents in the 2002 congressional elections, and only about 30 of the 435 seats in the House are considered competitive.

If the Supreme Court sides with Pennsylvania Democrats, Republican redistricting plans in Colorado, Texas, and other states will likely be reconsidered. If it rules that Pennsylvania Republicans did not act excessively, redistricting efforts will likely become more partisan.

Meanwhile, established progressive organizations such as People for the American Way and the Advancement Project have stepped up their voter education and protection efforts in preparation for the 2004 elections, and new groups are emerging to mobilize voters. Women's Voices, Women Vote, launched in December, will target unmarried women as a group that could sway the outcome of the next election. Last August, labor unions, the liberal political action committee EMILY's List, and the Sierra Club, with funding from the financier George Soros, formed America Coming Together, a PAC dedicated to defeating George Bush and electing progressive candidates around the country. In January, the National Council of Churches and the Center for Community Change announced a $15 million joint voter registration campaign.


Krista Camenzind is a former YES! intern.


Indicators are short news stories about big trends.

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