The recent redistricting of Texas, promoted and directed by Houston's congressman and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, reminds us that it is not just countries like Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan and Chechnya that rig their elections.

We've been doing it in this country ever since the Founding Fathers sought to assure that each congressional district would represent as nearly as possible an equal number of citizens. They provided a census, to be taken every 10 years, as the basis on which the districts could be realigned. Unfortunately, they left to the states how those district lines would be redrawn. The state legislators undertook the task and highly politicized it.

In Massachusetts, prior to the election of 1812, the party in power was facing defeat when the governor, Elbridge Gerry, redrew districts to consolidate his party's strength and weaken that of the opposition. A local newspaper editor thought one tortuously drawn district resembled a salamander and coined the word used ever after to describe the product of partisan redistricting – a "gerrymander."

Gerrymandering has been and is a bipartisan sin. If we single out Congressman DeLay and his Texas Republicans now, we can also indict California Democrats who, at one time, created a district for one of their incumbents that had 385 sides. The process perpetuates the rule of the party in power by making its members' districts virtually uncontestable, in effect disenfranchising many voters by making their votes meaningless.

In a recent update of his 1993 book, "Real Choices/New Voices," political scientist Douglas J. Amy says of gerrymandering that "instead of voters choosing their politicians, politicians actually choose their voters."

In the 2000 election, Democrats in the state of Texas won 57 percent of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, though they received only 47 percent of the statewide vote. Now, the Republicans are retaliating – with a vengeance. Their haste might bring the whole redistricting issue before the Supreme Court.

Except in cases where representation of racial minorities has been diluted, the courts traditionally have shied away from stepping in. But the Supreme Court has said that the practice of redistricting has its constitutional limits. And though it hasn't defined just where those limits are, Texas might be about to provoke a definition.

William E. Forbath, a professor of constitutional law and constitutional history at the University of Texas, believes the gerrymandered district map just approved by the Texas governor might trigger court action on several grounds. A likely one could be that Texas was redistricted after the 2000 election, but the DeLay forces chose to shatter precedent and redistrict again, just three years later. Another ground, says Forbath, is the blunt, one might say brazen, way they have advertised their purpose – to safeguard more Republican seats in Congress.

The problem with fixing this gaping hole in the fabric of our democracy is that neither party, when in power, is likely to forgo the advantage given it by the latest census – especially in the intensely partisan atmosphere of our national politics today.

Still, concern over this essentially corrupt practice has been rising, and some states have been trying alternatives to redistricting-by-legislature. Iowa has adopted an independent commission, with salutary results – more competitive elections and more sensible, contiguous congressional districts.

Rigged elections here seem especially scandalous today, as we preach to the Iraqis and others in the developing world the virtues of representative democracy and hold ourselves up as the paragon of that virtue. It is high time we cleaned up our own house.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at

(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

Distributed by King Features Syndicate