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Exercises in incumbent protection

Yes, I know what Finley Peter Dunne said, and I'm not expecting politics to be played according to the rules of beanbag. But it strikes me, as it strikes a lot of voters, that American politics has become particularly ugly in recent years.

I've heard (and offered) plenty of explanations: The calculated intemperance of talk radio and cable TV commentators; the growing efforts to destroy, not merely defeat, the opposition; the zealotry of certain elements of the hard right; the uncertainty of moderates and liberals. Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, offers one more: Winner-take-all elections.

Particularly in the case of congressional races, says Richie, the system encourages _ virtually requires _ politicians to do nasty things to each other.

Richie, in an op-ed article he wrote with CVD analyst Steven Hill, offers these examples: "In 1991, Texas Democrats gerrymandered (the Republicans) so effectively that they took more than two-thirds of the seats with only half the votes. The chief architect of that plan . . . was congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who admitted in 1997 that the redistricting process "is not one of kindness. It is not one of sharing. It is a power grab.' "

In Florida, where Democrats have the votes to control both U.S. Senate seats _ and where Democrats and Republicans finished in a dead heat in the last presidential election _ Republicans hold 18 of 25 seats in the U.S. House. How is that possible? Because Republicans controlled the redrawing of the congressional districts. Senate candidates, of course, are elected statewide.

If the situation seems worse in recent years, it may be because political advisers have become smarter, using powerful computer tools to maximize the benefits of such tactics as "packing" and "cracking" _ packing opposition candidates into as few districts as possible or cracking an opponent's voter base into several districts.

Even when it doesn't play out as partisan warfare, the results can be disheartening. Redistricting at its most benign is usually an exercise not in citizens' rights, but in incumbent protection. In 2002, only four incumbents lost to nonincumbent challengers. Every single incumbent in California won by a landslide. As Richie and Hill note: "It was no coincidence that Democratic incumbents forked over $20,000 apiece to the redistricting consultant to draw them a safe seat, and that the consultant was the brother of one of the incumbents. To buy their cooperation, Republican incumbents were given safe seats, too."

Richie would change the system. One relatively simple change would be to move from the winner-take-all single-member districts to three-seat "super districts," with each voter getting three votes to distribute as he wishes. Rather than losing a race even with 49.9 percent of the vote, as could be the case now, candidates in a super district could be elected with 25 percent of the vote. What that means in practical terms is that significantly more voters would have someone in office that they voted for. Racial and political minorities would be far more likely to be represented in the legislatures.

"Americans think that no Democrats live in the Rockies, or that there are no Republicans in Massachusetts," says Richie. "They're there; they just don't win very often. Actually, most of us live in places that are pretty far gone to one party or the other."

But winning isn't the only thing Richie's super districts might accomplish. The bitterest, most negative, political warfare tends to involve candidates who are competing for the same constituency. But suppose candidates found it advantageous to offer themselves as attractive second choices for voters whose first choice was someone else. The result, says Richie, would almost certainly be more political cooperation, and less calculated divisiveness.

"In the Northeast, for instance, the urban areas are almost all represented by Democrats," he says. "What that means is that when Republicans make their calculations they don't have to take those constituencies into account. But when you share a constituency, as you would in a three-member district, the whole approach changes.

"Throughout the Deep South, the dispersion of black voters often keeps them from having the numbers to win a seat, but if it only takes 25 percent, that changes. The most likely outcome in a three-seat district in these cases would be the election of a black Democrat, a white conservative Republican and a centrist of one party or the other. As it is now, hardly any centrists of, say, the Sam Nunn type, are winning."

The changes Richie has in mind would necessitate congressional legislation overturning a 1967 law requiring single-member districts. I'm afraid a lot of incumbents prefer things the way they are.

+ William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group