Salena Zito

Add redistricting as another drag on Democrats in their march to win back the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012.

   It’s hard to recruit new House candidates, or to fund-raise for incumbents, if you don’t know what the districts will look like.

   Redistricting, or the redrawing of a state’s House districts, follows reapportionment, which allocates congressional seats to the states. The latter occurred in December, when the Census Bureau released state population totals and revealed how many House seats (and electoral college votes) each state will have for the next decade.

   “Redistricting is a multi-year nerd fest for politicians, pundits, academics, lawyers, demographers, cartographers, and now even some hobbyists,” said Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report.

   This time, “12 House seats switched states, with ten states losing seats and eight states gaining,” said Wasserman, author of a nerdy little book called “Better Know a District.”

   And unlike some democracies, where redistricting is a simple procedure, in America it can be a highly contentious affair in which politicians "gerrymander" boundaries for partisan and personal advantage, Wasserman explains.

   His book is awash in statistics, scenarios and maps. It is not just for the political junkie to run home and open, like a kid with the Sears Christmas catalog; House expert Isaac Wood of the University of Virginia Center for Politics definitely recommends it for even the casual reader.

   The power of redistricting rests with state legislatures. Thanks to the 2010 midterm election, Republicans hold more than 50 percent of the states’ legislative seats, giving them the best position to cut and paste lines since 1928.

   In the next two or three election cycles, ten to 20 House seats likely will remain in GOP hands or flip from Democrats as a result of last year’s historic power switch.

   Despite unions pushing for recall elections of GOP state senators in Wisconsin, Republicans there have skirted a crisis and will finish redistricting ahead of any potential statehouse switch.

   All is not rosy for the GOP, however.

   In Illinois, which will lose one U.S. House seat, Democrats have carved up six Republican districts and hope to elect five new Democrats. In California, a new “citizen-run” process could turn three or four Republican-leaning seats into opportunities for Democrats.

   Yet Republicans could carve three North Carolina Democrats out of their seats and eliminate Democrat districts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Missouri.

   Every state (except for the seven with a single House seat each) will redistrict.

   So far, eight have finished, leaving 35 to go.

   There's no firm time-line, according to Wasserman, because “every state has its own set of candidate-filing deadlines.” The process will more or less be completed by mid-2012, save for a few lawsuits.

   In 2010, Republicans won an impressive 12-7 shift in battleground-state Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation. So look for redistricting to protect that advantage, most likely by merging Democrats into heavily Republican districts. 

   In Northeastern Pennsylvania, for example, that means taking Democrat-heavy Scranton out of Democrat-leaning House District 11, now held by Republican Lou Barletta, and adding it to GOP-heavy District 10, held by Republican Tom Marino, ensuring the re-election of both freshmen.

   One quirk this time is the rise of independents: More voters identify themselves as independents, not Republicans or Democrats, and switch party preferences from one election to the next.

   That means “the effects of gerrymandering may now only be felt for an election or two … and not for the entire ten years,” said political scientist Jeff Brauer. He said that “certainly was one factor” in the past decade’s shifts in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation.

   Wood says average citizens should pay attention to redistricting: “They are often confused to find that they are in a new district, with a new representative, and are even more baffled when they see that their neighbor is no longer in the same district they are.”

   Wasserman says redistricting’s technology has evolved from giant maps laid on gymnasium floors in the 1970s to today’s iPod apps, which creates its own unique problems.

   “So in James Carville-Mary Matalin type households,” he jokes, referring to a politically split family, “mapmakers are being tempted to split the living room from the kitchen.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.