Outcry for Redistricting Reform Picks Up

Civil rights groups fear redrawn districts will disenfranchise minorities

A growing movement to reform redistricting rules is taking shape across the country, as civil rights leaders and politicians work to preserve the right of African Americans to have their votes counted fairly.

“Everybody should be able to elect a candidate of choice,” says Crispian Kirk, bureau counsel for the NAACP. “And a lot of times African Americans have not been able to do that because of [redistricting] schemes, and therefore their vote is diluted.”

Redistricting is the process of redrawing legislative boundaries based on population. The Constitution requires states to redraw political boundaries every 10 years to reflect changes in population recorded in the census.

Following the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court cases Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims, lawmakers strived to make sure state legislative districts are “as nearly of equal population as is practicable.” Since then, results of the decennial census have been used — no later than the following year — to ensure that voting districts are created using the most current population statistics.

The redistricting process has historically been subject to criticism because state legislators are the ones who draw the lines. “We have incumbent lawmakers who are, by the nature of this task, conflicted,” says Jon Goldin-Dubois, vice president of state campaign operations for Common Cause, a group that is working with civil rights leaders and other organizations to organize redistricting reform efforts.

“How can you have those who are in office draw their own districts and districts for their friends and colleagues? It’s a fundamental conflict of interest,” Goldin-Dubois says. Many also believe such a practice could disenfranchise entire groups of voters, including minorities.

Further muddying the issue, in 2003, Texas Republicans managed to push through a mid-decade redistricting plan that culminated in a Republican victory in four races. Many political observers — both Democratic and Republican — are against the idea, arguing that mid-decade redistricting endangers the voting process because it is not based on the most current population information.

In response to those fears, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) proposed legislation in February to limit redistricting to once every 10 years; the bill has yet to move through the voting process. Legislation is also being pushed to change those responsible for overseeing the process.

Redistricting has become a topic of interest in states besides Texas. In Massachusetts, California, Ohio, and Florida, coalitions and political leaders are working to pass reform measures that would establish criteria guiding the redistricting process, take the responsibility away from state legislatures, give the authority to nonpartisan independent councils, and create a more transparent and open process. California and Ohio are each set to have redistricting issues on their Nov. 8 ballot. In Florida, a campaign is under way to get redistricting reform measures included on the 2006 ballot.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backs Proposition 77, which calls for a panel of retired judges to oversee redistricting. Although intended to give the voting public its deserving power, a recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit organization that conducts independent research, found that more voters oppose

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