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For congressional districts, weird may well work

Another weirdly shaped congressional district is in the news _ this one, Florida's 3rd, looking, according to the Associated Press' description, "like a connect-the-dots diagram of black enclaves sprinkled across northeastern and north-central Florida." The district, now represented by Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown, is 50.6 percent black and three-fourths Democratic.

Like other weirdly shaped districts in North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere, this one is under court challenge (even though it was drawn under court order to help boost black representation in Congress) as being unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

To look at the district map is to conclude that the mapmakers ought to be sent back to their worktables. Surely they could have drawn a neater looking district _ maybe not a checkerboard square but at least something more compact than the Florida 3rd. The way it is makes clear that it was only designed to lump blacks together, without regard for either their actual political interests or for cartographic comeliness.

And yet, on examination, this intuitive conclusion has little to recommend it.

In the first place, it assumes that the weird-looking districts are aberrations from some once pristine checkerboard. They aren't. Most congressional districts look a little weird, and not merely because of a meandering boundary-marking river. Mostly they are redrawn by state legislatures in ways that protect congressional incumbents.

I'm looking at two particularly weird-looking districts now, both in Texas. I wouldn't want to judge which takes the odder twists and turns, or which has the narrowest bands between population clumps (in order to make them legally contiguous).

Here's the point: The 30th, now held by Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, is 47 percent black. A Texas court has ruled the district unconstitutionally gerrymandered. The 6th is represented by Republican Joe Barton and, as far as the courts are concerned, perfectly legitimate. It is 89 percent white.

Elaine R. Jones, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., wonders wryly how it is this "bizarreness becomes a constitutional issue only when it applies to districts with a substantial black population, while white districts that are at least as funny-looking are allowed to stand."

Jones' is not an idle criticism. She and her fellow LDEF lawyers are stuck with the job of arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court shouldn't be in the business of reviewing maps for their shapeliness at all. The Constitution requires that the districts be roughly equal in population (around 575,000 each at present), and the law requires that they be contiguous. Nothing, so far as I have found, requires that they be squared off, or neat, or even compact.

Indeed, it is fair to ask whether geography should be the only _ even the principal _ factor in dividing states into voting districts.

There may have been a time when our interests were more or less tied to our geography. But in the highly mobile society that America has become, political viewpoint certainly seems worth considering in drawing the boundaries of a district to be represented by a single representative. And given the racial polarization in much of the country, so might race.

Neither the Constitution nor intuition seems capable of resolving the issue, which is fundamentally political. In some cases, black voters' interests as farmers, or as urban professionals, or as political liberals, might outweigh their purely racial interests. In other cases, race may transcend other concerns.

What, in any case, suggests that geographical compactness should be the overriding concern?

Two problems seem inextricably tied together. The first is that the districts have to be redrawn from time to time, as populations shift, and the redrawing has to be based on some principle or else be suspect. The second is that nobody has made a compelling case for what that principle should be.

One interesting proposal would cut the Gordian knot by eliminating districts altogether in favor of a proportional representation scheme. But because it would require a constitutional amendment, it provides no help for the Supreme Court, which is being asked, in effect, to send a dozen or more black representatives back home.

Washington Post Writers Group