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Safe House

In the olden days of politics, electoral wipe outs were great spectacles to behold. When Democrats or Republicans slipped on the political banana peel, they would tumble, arms flailing like Chevy Chase, into congressional defeat. In the 1894 election, Democrats squandered 125 seats; in 1922, Republicans endured a loss of 77seats. This year, for the first time in over a decade, there's talk of a wipeout. But this wipeout, should it occur, would entail Republicans losing a mere 30 seats--and only in the unlikely event that every Bible-beating, gun-toting rural district breaks in the Democrats' direction.

When we wax nostalgic for the bygone era of true electoral catastrophes, it's not just out of a hunger for more enjoyable political theater. We're pining for elections that reflect public will. And such an outcome is not likely this year. Take a look at recent opinion surveys, such as the one Newsweek released on October 28. Democrats have run up double-digit advantages on major issues from Iraq to the economy. When voters are presented with a generic congressional ballot, Democrats win 53-39. But there's simply no way that this will translate. Virginia, Missouri, and Tennessee, for instance, are hosting three of the nation's tightest Senate races. But travel a step down the ballot, and you will find only one close contest in those states' combined 29 house races.The entire state of California has only two somewhat tight contests--and it wouldn't even have those, except for a pair of GOP incumbents' associations with Jack Abramoff.

All this is the legacy of our least favorite Founding Father,Elbridge Gerry, and the formula for rigging congressional elections that bears his name. Not that it's all Gerry's fault. The redistricting plan he signed in 1812--and the hundreds that have followed--merely exploited a massive flaw in our electoral system.When you have congressional districts, those districts will have boundaries, and those boundaries will inevitably rebound to one party's favor. Unless we remake our system of government in the image of Germany or New Zealand, most American voters are going to be stuck with the annoying fact that their congressional vote doesn't much matter; their incumbent will win, no matter which lever they pull.

But, before we throw up our hands altogether, we need to examine all the ways in which the system has grown more pernicious in recent years. By any measure, the parties are getting more cutthroat in their redistricting battles, and, thanks to fancy software, they are fighting, block by block, to secure advantages. There is, of course, no more sinister modern-day practitioner of the state-of-the-art gerrymander than Tom DeLay. His infamous Texas redistricting scheme shattered an ancient tradition of redistricting only once per decade. The map he drew split Austin voters into two new districts, one of which snakes 300 miles south to the Mexican border. Thanks to his handiwork, the GOP netted five Texas seats in2004, more than half of their total nationwide gain that cycle.

Distressingly, when the Supreme Court looked at DeLay's plan, it found almost nothing to quibble with, except for the shifting of100,000 Hispanic voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The justices left open the question of whether a gerrymander could ever be screwy enough to merit judicial intervention. But, if the Texas case didn't scream out for a rebuke from the courts, what bizarre scheme ever could?

Fortunately, if you can't count on the courts to rectify this shortcoming, then at least you can count on the good people of Iowa. They have empowered a nonpartisan Legislative Service Bureau to draw up three redistricting plans after each census, which they then present to the legislature. The law strictly forbids the Legislative Service Bureau from looking at previous election results or the addresses of incumbents. And the Hawkeye system works pretty well. In 2002, four out of the state's five congressional races were competitive. And, this year, Iowa has two tight races.But even this solution provides only a sliver of hope. Voters in Ohio and California have recently rejected ballot initiatives that would similarly empower independent commissions to redraw their state's congressional districts.

In other words, the problem of gerrymandering is now as much cultural as constitutional. The fact that our system of government has such a massive flaw at its center elicits almost no political passion. You'll only find complaints in the corners of goo-goo think tanks. And such passivity in the face of democratic decay is itself a depressing sign of disrepair.