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Analysis: GOP Scores A Big Victory In Sampling Case

It could be important in the next round of redistricting

By Bill Schneider/CNN

WASHINGTON (Aug. 31) -- When the Census Bureau proposed using sampling to compensate for undercounted minorities, Republicans erupted in a firestorm of protest.

"We'll be devastated," they cried. Last week, though, the federal court in Washington came to the GOP's rescue with a unanimous, three-judge decision that bans sampling. Republicans are jubilant.

"I hope the administration will accept the fact that it is now a matter of being illegal," House Speaker Newt Gingrich said. "It's not a matter of political opinion, it's not a matter of argument, it is illegal to take any census other than actual enumeration for the purpose of reapportionment."

Storey
Tim Storey

Why does reapportionment stir up so much emotion?

"It's been called the purest of all political bloodsports," said Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I certainly think there was a time when that was completely true."

It also happens to be the most boring issue in politics. Politicians rely on that fact. If no one is watching when they redraw the lines, they can get away with anything, and they always have.

Politicians want safe districts, districts where they know the issues and the voters, and where the voters know them.

"You get a lot of personal requests," said Paul Mannweiler, a Republican from the Indiana State House. "My aunt lives and runs the church in this district and is very active and so I'd like that township."

State legislators control redistricting, so when the National Conference of State Legislatures met in Las Vegas this summer, the most mind-numbing, technical, boring sessions on redistricting drew legislators in like a blockbuster movie with nude scenes and free popcorn.

Mannweiler
Paul Mannweiler

Why? Because redistricting determines winner and losers.

"Their district, and I guess their potential political future, depends on where those lines are drawn," says Mannweiler.

Redistricting used to be like sorcery, an obscure art known only to a few deeply knowledgeable insiders. After the 1980 census, the sorcerer-general was California congressman Phil Burton, who helped his fellow Democrats in California and elsewhere draw lines that protected -- and expanded -- their majorities.

The lines may have not been pretty, but Burton called his contorted remap of California "my contribution to modern art."

Republicans got their revenge after the 1990 census. GOP Chairman Lee Atwater made it a top priority to provide resources and technical expertise to state Republican parties.

It paid off when the GOP made big gains in 1992 and 1994. Will there be another Phil Burton in 2000?

Burton
Rep. Phil Burton

That's unlikely. The process is subject to a lot more legal scrutiny and the technology is more accessible. What you can do with lines today is amazing.

After the 1990 census, consultants could combine census tracts to get exactly the racial makeup they wanted for a district. After the 2000 census, they will be able to build a district household by household, selecting a household and finding out how many registered voters live there.

"With technology now, you can take a computer and split precincts, dissect census tracts and census blocks and pretty much put together a district that, in 95 out of 100 cases, you can predict exactly how it's going to vote," says Kim Brace of Election Data Services.

The technology gives power to incumbents, political parties and organized minorities who take an interest in the process.

Only one thing protects the voters: divided control of state government that makes it impossible for one party to draw the lines.

Right now, only 19 states have one-party control of both the governor and the legislature. Six are ruled by Democrats and 13 by Republicans. Republicans want to keep that advantage and expand it. The last thing they want is more Democratic districts. That's why they feel so threatened by statistical sampling: if the census finds more minority voters, there will be more Democratic districts.

Congressional Republicans held out, they went to court, and last week, they won.

A lot of experts argue that Republican fears of sampling are way overblown, and sampling might create only a few more Democratic seats, at most.

What's really important is control of redistricting, not control of the census. As one census official put it, what's driving this controversy is political anxiety, not political science.

In Other News

Monday, August 31, 1998

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