Moreover, a split-down-the-middle national electorate will put extra pressure on party leaders to protect incumbents for the next decade. “Pro-incumbent gerrymandering occurs in a divided government,” says Mr. Persily. “At the congressional level, the potential impact is huge, because everyone believes [redistricting] could determine who controls Congress.”
The incumbent-friendly strategy means lawmakers try to absorb more voters of their own party into their districts and shed those of the opposite party. This creates “safe seats” and less competitive elections, but Mr. Persily maintains it can also create more representative government. For example, if one district were 100 percent Republican, then all the voters would share the same political philosophy as their representative. At the other extreme, if the district were 50 percent Republican and 50 percent Democratic, either party could win the seat, yet “half the voters would be unhappy.”
In reality, districts are neither 100 percent one party nor divided 50-50. Instead, a district that’s effectively controlled by one party contains a minority percentage of voters from the other – and the size of that percentage figures in governance, according to experts. In the Washington, D.C.–based newsletter Roll Call, political analyst Stuart Rothenberg has predicted that “the creation of safe seats is likely to produce a House of Representatives more inclined to partisan bickering and gridlock, not less. … Even though it is reasonable to argue that members from safe seats will be more politically independent (since they presumably are less vulnerable to short-term swings in voter sentiment), history teaches otherwise.”
Mr. Rothenberg’s logic holds that a liberal member of Congress in a marginal district must make concessions to conservative voters or run the risk of losing in the next election. The same holds true for a conservative politician from a balanced district. But politicians who represent strongly right- or left-leaning districts can take absolute, ideological positions without any motivation to negotiate.
A look at the voting patterns of current Hispanic members of Congress supports the argument. The Almanac of American Politics 2002 (National Journal, $56.95) rates lawmakers’ voting records relative to their peers. A 90 percent liberal rating, for example, would mean a legislator voted “more liberal” than 90 percent of his or her colleagues on selected issues. Comparison of conservative/liberal ratings with district voting data from the 2000 presidential election – a good measure of partisan leanings – shows that, indeed, members from strongly partisan districts tend to vote accordingly (see table). Nydia Velázquez, the only Hispanic who qualified for the Almanac’s list of “25 Most Liberal Members of Congress,” delivered 81 percent of her district to Democrat Al Gore.
On the other hand, Democrat Solomon Ortiz, whose district split 50-50 between George W. Bush and Mr. Gore, has a “46.3 liberal” rating, meaning that he votes with conservatives more often than with liberals. Mr. Diaz-Balart’s district leans slightly Republican, whereas Congressman Ruben Hinojosa’s district is slightly Democratic. Those lawmakers’ ratings reflect their mixed constituencies.
All Hispanic members of Congress except one (Henry Bonilla of Texas) represent “safe districts,” defined as those in which the incumbent won at least 60 percent of the vote in 2000 (see table). “One problem with our whole Congress today is you get these seats that are so safe, the representative doesn’t feel threatened,” comments Mr. Brischetto. “It does affect the politics. The congressman or congresswoman doesn’t consider the opinions of the loyal opposition, the other party. That’s not good for democracy.”
NALEO’s Mr. Vargas believes safe districting “provides a disincentive to vote, because these elections are a foregone conclusion.” The only substantive competition occurs during the primary election, he says. In fact, the only Hispanic incumbent to lose an election in the past decade was Matthew Martinez, who lost to fellow Democrat Hilda Solis in California’s 2000 primary.
Mr. Persily and Mr. Vargas expect the debate over redistricting to occupy federal courts for the next 10 years, but the 2002 election cycle will proceed according to each state legislature’s final version. “It’s all wrapped up except for the litigation,” says Mr. Vargas. “This year’s elections will happen under the plans as passed.”
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