Archipelagos, rat tails and paint blotches

Of the 435 House races, all but a handful could have been predicted a year ago.

The 2004 presidential race between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was one of the most hard-fought and closely contested elections in U.S. history. A number of Senate races were equally competitive, with several incumbents barely retaining their seats and the Senate Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., losing his.

But the national drama largely ends there.

Of the 435 races in the House of Representatives, all but a handful could have been predicted a year ago. The vast majority of incumbents won landslide victories with more than two-thirds of the vote. Thirty-four did not even face a challenger.

That’s because most congressional districts have been gerrymandered to remain safely Democratic or Republican well into the future. Sample almost any state’s congressional map and you’ll find districts that resemble rat tails, Pacific archipelagos and art nouveau paint blotches. The one thing you won’t find is a coherent geographic region with Democrats, Republicans and a history of competitive elections.

The House was designed to closely follow public opinion, with incumbents forced to renew their mandates every two years. Now, one of the safest jobs in the country is a seat in the House. Redistricting has become a sophisticated exercise in crass partisanship – with the aid of public opinion polls, major party rolls and complicated demographic projections.

The result is a stunted democratic process that leaves voters out in the cold and the House locked in heated partisan division. Lopsided districts effectively disenfranchise a minority of voters, whose concerns are ignored year after year. Those mangled districts also tend to elect more partisan candidates, contributing to congressional gridlock and the shrill tone of many political debates.

There is no easy solution to the problem of gerrymandering. The courts have so far failed to turn back even the most blatant efforts to rig congressional districts. Until that day comes, voters across the nation will continue to cast ballots in rat tails or archipelagos for the same partisan incumbents.