Robert McCartney: Political parties shouldn’t draw election maps

01/31/2013 12:00 AM

01/30/2013 5:38 PM

Both Republicans and Democrats regularly exhibit such greed and dishonesty in manipulating electoral maps that a Columbia University expert who studies the practice likened his work to that of an anthropologist who observes cannibals.

“I have to replace normal human reactions of disgust and revulsion with fascination and curiosity. It’s the only way I can cope,” said Nathaniel Persily, a law professor who has helped draw election lines in Maryland and other states.

Virginia Republicans are the latest offenders in the sorry saga of politicians seeking to contort the voting process to help their party, and they are going for it in a big way.

First they shoved a bill through the state Senate that would significantly gerrymander voting jurisdictions for that chamber’s members to benefit the GOP. They did so without hearings in a year when the state constitution suggests that they have no business making such changes.

Some Republican legislators in Virginia have also pushed a separate measure to rejigger how the state’s presidential tally is counted. Under their bill, President Obama would have received only four of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes last year, even though he beat Mitt Romney by nearly 150,000 votes in the popular count.

The GOP efforts in Richmond should appall anyone who cares about democracy and fairness. Still, let’s be objective. The Democrats do it, too. The GOP has done it more in the current census cycle nationwide because it controls more state governments. But both parties are guilty.

For instance, Maryland Democrats fashioned one of the nation’s most grotesque U.S. congressional district maps to squeeze a Republican out of office last year in the 6th District in the state’s western half. In addition, when Democrats controlled the Virginia Senate before the 2011 legislative elections, they designed the districts to help themselves. The current GOP bid to redraw those lines arises partly from simple retaliation.

The new GOP bill on the Virginia Senate is especially offensive and worrisome because of its timing. The parties are supposed to make major changes in the map only once each decade.

The GOP risks setting a precedent that would lead to constant redistricting battles not only in Virginia but elsewhere around the country. That would aggravate partisan hostilities and distract legislators from dealing with schools, roads and other issues that affect voters more directly.

The controversy should prompt the public and responsible politicians around the nation to demand adoption of a nonpartisan process for drawing election maps. California and some other states have given the job to bipartisan commissions, with generally positive results.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen right now, because the GOP currently has an interest nationally in protecting existing gerrymanders.

That’s because the Republicans won control of so many state governments in the anti-Obama backlash in the midterm elections in 2010. That allowed them to draw more maps in their favor.

As a result, in the 2012 U.S. congressional elections, the GOP won a 33-seat majority in the House even though Democrats won 50.4 percent of the popular vote in all House races combined.

Most other major industrialized democracies don’t have this problem. They have independent, trusted civil servants to do the job. America should copy their example or appoint bipartisan commissions and remove this stain on civic integrity.

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