TALLAHASSEE - The greatest peril to our democracy lurks not in Iraq, Iran or North Korea, or in whatever rathole where Osama bin Laden is hiding. It swaggers here, and in most of the other American state capitals where the politicians decide which assortment of voters they will pretend to represent.
You don't really elect them anymore. They pick you.
There are only about 35 competitive congressional districts. Four of them are in Iowa, one of the few states with a nonpartisan redistricting process.
In the other 400 districts the winning party is predictable; often it is unopposed. The ratio is as poor in most state legislatures.
Redistricting has been a cynical process almost as long as the United States has been a nation - the term gerrymander, for the salamander-shape district crafted by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, dates to 1812 - but with computers having put so much more detail in and having taken the guesswork out, scarcely anything remains for the voters to decide. What action still exists, far too little of it, is mainly in the legislative primaries and in statewide races, for governors and senators, where maps don't matter.
In Florida last year, 19 of the 40 state Senate seats were uncontested. Fifty-six House members, out of 120, were either entirely unopposed or faced only nuisance opposition from write-ins or Libertarians. In the entire Legislature, of 160 so-called "races," only 14 were decided by 10 percentage points or less. Eight of 25 congressional seats were uncontested, and only one of the other 17 was close.
That was a redistricting year in which turnover should have been high.
What there was of it came mostly by design. The Republicans used their control of both houses of the Legislature to dispose of U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman and state Sen. Richard Mitchell. This is why my Tallahassee neighborhood has a state senator who lives in Dunnellon, more than 180 miles away.
In Michigan, Republicans had run the numbers to pair six Democratic congressional incumbents in three districts and wound up winning nine of the 15 seats with 35,000 fewer overall votes than the Democrats polled. In Texas, the Republicans have just assured themselves of as many as seven new congressional seats in a show of force during which they frankly said that any Democrat who wasn't black or Hispanic was in trouble. But, as pointed out in one of the briefs for a landmark Pennsylvania case the Supreme Court will hear next Wednesday, "Republicans are only doing unto Democrats as Democrats have done unto them." Democratic legislatures set up conservative Republican Bob Barr of Georgia and liberal Republican Connie Morella of Maryland for defeat last year. California's Democratic redistricting of 1982 was historically offensive; after voters repealed it in an initiative, the Democrats re-enacted substantially the same plan.
For an excellent overview of the situation, I recommend "The Great Election Grab," by Jeffrey Toobin in the Dec. 8 New Yorker. It's also on the Web site, www.newyorker.com)
The Pennsylvania case, Vieth vs. Jubelirer, is as vital to saving American democracy as was the great round of malapportionment cases 40 years ago.
Because of population shifts from farm to city and suburb, by 1950 there was not a single state in which the majority of members of either legislative house purported to represent a majority of voters. Florida was among the worst of the worst; 14 percent of the population had a majority of seats in the Senate and 15 percent controlled the House. Following a series of epic battles with rural legislators and voter rejection of a poor compromise, Gov. LeRoy Collins left office in 1961 thinking that he had failed in the most important task he had assigned himself. There had been nothing to force the Legislature's hand; the Supreme Court had long since refused to involve itself in what it called the "political thicket" of state districting.
Barely a year later, however, the court reversed itself in a Tennessee case, Baker vs. Carr. Justice Hugo Black later told Collins that his foredoomed fight in Florida had been influential in that historic decision. Soon, every legislature was apportioned according to the principle of "one voter, one vote."
But even that one vote has been stolen from most of us by the way the maps are drawn. The court has more work to do. It needs to finish what it started 17 years ago in another historic ruling, Davis vs. Bandemer, that found partisan gerrymandering to be a proper subject for judicial review. As it neglected to lay out any meaningful standard of review, lower courts have unfailingly played the three-monkey act.
"Politicians regularly behave," notes one of the briefs, "as if the court had reached the opposite conclusion."
That brief, one of many in the case, represents the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice, at New York University law school, which is named for the justice who wrote the majority opinion in Baker vs. Carr. Democracy is on the line once again in the Pennsylvania case. It's as big as any case ever was.