Updated at 9:45 a.m.
National party leaders are raising hundreds of millions for a high-stakes redistricting war that will define the political playing field for the next decade. And reform advocates, state legislators and experts are paying attention -- thanks in part to an unlikely assist from Hollywood.
Voters typically ignore redistricting, the complex, often secretive process of redrawing the legislative and congressional district lines after the decennial census. But this year, redistricting is almost hot.
"I have to say that I have never seen more attention paid to a redistricting process, and we haven't even started yet," said J. Gerald Hebert, a veteran election lawyer working with the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, and project administrator of Americans for Redistricting Reform.
Reform efforts have hit a wall of resistance from incumbents, who appreciate how the current system enables party insiders to protect their seats.
It's impossible to say exactly how much political players and organizers will spend on redistricting, partly because many nonparty groups driving the process face minimal disclosure requirements. But some estimates put redistricting-related expenditures -- for legislative and gubernatorial campaigns, data analysis, map-drawing and court fights -- at $200 million or more.
As usual, Democratic Party leaders are getting a big assist from labor-backed groups and loosely regulated outside organizations, including the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which is largely exempt from any reporting rules. The group recently won approval from the Federal Election Commission to collect soft (unregulated) money with the help of federal candidates and officeholders. Reform advocates had objected that this violates the 2002 soft money ban. (Hebert recused himself from the debate over the FEC's soft money ruling, due to his work for the trust.)
GOP leaders historically have relied on the Republican National Committee to lead the redistricting effort. But this year they're branching out, tapping a network of new 501(c)4 and 527 organizations for fundraising and technical help. These include the Republican State Leadership Committee, a 527 headed by Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President George W. Bush.
At the same time, reform advocates at the state level, and to a lesser extent on Capitol Hill, are calling for new rules aimed at ending gerrymandering, the process of manipulating district lines to favor a party or candidate. In the House, the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition has backed legislation authored by Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., that would pull back the curtain on the secretive redistricting process and force more public participation and input.
"The present system makes bipartisanship difficult and sometimes virtually impossible," said Tanner when the Blue Dogs endorsed his bill, the Redistricting Transparency Act, earlier this year. Tanner pointed to data from the Cook Political Report showing that fewer than 100 of 435 House districts are competitive within a 4-point margin of error.
Tanner joined GOP California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month at E Street Cinema in Washington for a screening of a new Jeff Reichert documentary, Gerrymandering, that will hit theaters this fall. The film sets out to educate and galvanize voters to engage in the redistricting process, which is notoriously obscure, little understood and politically stage-managed. It's not the first such effort -- a few years back the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts released a video game, "The Redistricting Game," with a similar intent.
Legislative and ballot fights over the redistricting rules also are unfolding around the country, though with mixed success. California has already approved an independent redistricting commission to draw state legislative districts, and a ballot initiative proposes to expand the commission model to congressional districts. Redistricting reform proposals also are on the ballot in Florida and North Dakota. In all but a handful of states, the legislature controls the redistricting process, handing considerable power to the party in charge.
But as on Capitol Hill, state-based reform efforts have hit a wall of resistance from incumbents, who appreciate how the current system enables party insiders to protect their seats. Reform proposals in Illinois and Ohio fizzled this year. In Florida, Reps. Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican, have gone to court in a bid to throw out a pair of ballot initiatives aimed at ending partisan gerrymandering there.
Acknowledging that calls for change may not go far this year, some academics and experts have launched a push to at least increase transparency and public participation in the process. A group of scholars from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute last month released a set of principles for transparency in redistricting, including nonproprietary formats for redistricting plans, and public availability and documentation for maps and criteria.
"We would like to see the redistricting authorities make all the same information they are using to evaluate and draw maps available to the public," said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, who has been talking up the effort with state officials and activists. "Hold some meetings. Take some public input at the outset of the process."
Even shedding a little more light on the redistricting process will be an uphill battle, given how aggressively politicians have set out to guard their territory this year. But slowly, redistricting may be coming out of the shadows. Noted Hebert: "The more publicity and the more light we shed on the process, the more people are going to demand that it be changed."