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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

There's one crucial element to this November's elections that's largely passed under the radar, and it's the issue of redistricting.

Every 10 years, after the census data comes out, each state has to redraw its congressional districts. Now, in a very small number of states, those lines are drawn by nonpartisan commissions. But in most states:

Ms. LYNN RIVERS (Former Democratic Representative, Michigan): Whomever has the power draws the lines.

RAZ: So the party that controls the state government decides how to set up the districts. And in many cases, it means they draw those lines to give their own party the best advantage in elections.

We begin this hour with a look at how a Republican sweep this November could affect congressional districts and why Democrats aren't showing up to vote so far. But first to how redistricting changed the life of one former member of Congress.

Ms. RIVERS: My name is Lynn Rivers. I served in the United States House of Representatives as a congresswoman from the state of Michigan from January of 1995 to January of 2003.

RAZ: In the 1990s, Michigan's population declined. So the state lost a seat in Congress the next decade as a result.

Ms. RIVERS: So we went from having 16 members in the U.S. House to knowing that we would have only 15.

RAZ: Now, at the time, Republicans controlled Michigan's state Houses, the governor's office and the Supreme Court. And in 2001, the state legislature redrew the congressional map.

Ms. RIVERS: When you look at the way they drew the lines, I mean, it was executed beautifully from their perspective. They did a very good job.

RAZ: A good job for Republicans, but not for Lynn Rivers. She was a Democrat, and the new congressional map combined her district with the one represented by another Democrat, John Dingell. He was one of the most powerful members of Congress. Here's a recording of their debate, an AARP event in 2002.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Please limit your applause, ladies and gentlemen. It only -it really only takes up time for us this morning.

Ms. RIVERS: And John had been in Congress longer than I was alive.

RAZ: Lynn Rivers and other Democrats from Michigan challenged the way Republicans redrew the map because if she wanted to stay in Congress, she'd have to run against Dingell in the primary.

Ms. RIVERS: I certainly hoped either optimistically or through denial that at some point, the court was going to step in and sort of save me from this. Obviously, that never happened.

Unidentified Man: Lynn N. Rivers from the 13th District.

RAZ: And so she ran, and so did John Dingell.

(Soundbite of music)

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): I think before us...

Ms. RIVERS: I'm running a very upbeat and positive campaign.

Rep. DINGELL: ...is the question of who has the best record of service and accomplishment.

Ms. RIVERS: I'm not trying to tear anyone down. I'm talking about me, my life and the experience - it was awful in a number of counts. It was awful in terms of sort of the imbalance of power. It was also terrible in the sense that it was a fight within the family.

RAZ: Lynn Rivers lost. And because of redistricting, other Michigan Democrats lost their seats too.

Ms. RIVERS: By virtue of the lines alone, we went from having a Democratic majority of nine out of 16 to having a Republican majority of nine out of 15.

RAZ: And like a lot of former members of Congress, Lynn Rivers thinks the way lines are drawn in most states is wrong, actually unfair, even though the courts have agreed that redistricting can be an entirely political process.

Ms. RIVERS: It is certainly hardball politics. It's partisan. It's not necessarily about what are the best lines to draw to best represent the people of the state.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIVERS: And I would tell them that life isn't fair and you can't make people be fair, but you can demand that people be truthful.

Rep. DINGELL: This new district will need...

Ms. RIVERS: Those votes that Mr. Dingell has referred to were about deficit spending.

Rep. DINGELL: That will need a leader who will lead in the right direction for...

Ms. RIVERS: I mean, we look at federal redistricting and we think about Congress somehow being in control of it. And, in fact, it is the state government that controls the redistricting, the redrawing of congressional districts.

RAZ: This past week, Lynn Rivers was at an event in Michigan. She ran into John Dingell there. They hadn't spoken in years. She was still upset about the attacks his campaign ran against her. But at that event, John Dingell made a point of approaching her.

Ms. RIVERS: And he said to me, you know, I'm really sorry about what happened, but neither you nor I caused it. And that's absolutely true.

RAZ: That's Lynn Rivers. She served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. She now teaches political science at the University of Michigan.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Now while most of the political attention is focused on whether Republicans will retake the House of Representatives, Republican strategists are quietly focusing on winning state Houses because the next legislative term will determine how congressional districts are drawn in each state.

Tim Storey is a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures, and he says a few key victories in a few key states can make all the difference.

Mr. TIM STOREY (Senior Fellow, National Conference of State Legislatures): Republicans are poised to have one of the best election cycles they've had in decades at the state level, certainly since 1994 and perhaps even surpassing 1994.

All of the indications are, all the signs point to a big Republican year in both state legislative races and state governor's races. And the timing could not be better for Republicans because it could put them in the best position for redistricting that they've ever been in since the modern redistricting era began back in the 1970s.

RAZ: Democrats control the legislatures in 27 states, Republicans in 14. Eight states are split. How many states do you think Republicans could gain, could take over?

Mr. STOREY: Well, realistically, there are probably 30 state legislative chambers that are in play this election. That's a fairly high number. What's interesting about that is that Democrats are essentially on defense in just about every case.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, in places like Nevada, they have a three-seat majority; in Wisconsin, a three-seat majority.

Mr. STOREY: The Ohio House, the Pennsylvania House. In Alabama, the Republicans are very optimistic they could win one or both of the legislative chambers in Alabama this election cycle. So you could easily see a return to sort of parity.

As we go into the election, the Democrats have a decided advantage in terms of control of state legislatures, both in terms of number of seats, the number of chambers and the number of states that they control. And the Republicans could even that up or do even better.

RAZ: In which states do you think that Republican victories in state Houses will have the greatest impact on the way congressional districts are redrawn?

Mr. STOREY: Keeping in mind that every state has to redraw all of the U.S. House districts following the release of the new census data at the end of this year and early next year, the detailed data that the states will get.

But it's the states with the big delegations, like Pennsylvania, where the House is currently controlled by the Democrats, by a narrow majority. If that goes to Republicans, it would make a big difference.

The Ohio House, if that were to go back from Democratic to Republican, that would make a big difference. The New York Senate, which is only Democratic majority by a very narrow, sort of one-seat margin, 32 Democrats to 30 Republicans, if the Republicans could tie or retake control of that chamber, it would have a huge impact on redrawing congressional lines in New York, a state that's most likely to lose at least one and maybe two U.S. House seats.

RAZ: Say, Republicans make substantial gains in state Houses this fall, how much of a difference could it make nationally with respect to the Republican representation in the House of Representatives?

Mr. STOREY: When you start to look at it state by state, if there's a big Republican wave election in November - and I'm talking sort of everything going almost entirely their way, winning governor's races in California and in Illinois and winning state legislative chambers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York - if everything were sort of move in the GOP direction, the advantage for the Republicans in redistricting would be fairly dramatic.

They could find that they have almost sort of unilateral authority, controlling both the state House, the state Senate and the governor, to draw about 160 U.S. House seats, as opposed to a much smaller number for Democrats.

RAZ: That's Tim Storey. He's a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Tim Storey, thank you so much.

Mr. STOREY: You're very welcome.

RAZ: The thing that matters perhaps most about who will win the election might not be about President Obama's popularity or frustration over stimulus and bailouts and unemployment. It might just be something called the enthusiasm gap. And it's something Curtis Gans tracks pretty closely.

He's a political scientist at American University, and he's been looking at voter turnout so far this year. And what he's found is pretty clear: Republicans have been voting in much higher numbers than Democrats. And he says that gap could mean a huge victory for Republicans in the fall.

Curtis Gans is in the studio with me. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CURTIS GANS (Director, Center for the Study of the American Electorate, American University): Glad to be here.

RAZ: Now you've studied the so-called enthusiasm gap for this year's primary so far. How big a difference are you seeing in Republican and Democratic turnout?

Mr. GANS: Well, the turnout gap is four million people. There are about, you know, 30 million people that voted in the statewide primaries. Seventeen-plus voted Republican, 12-plus voted, you know, Democratic. It is the first time since 1930 that Republican turnout has exceeded Democratic.

I think the critical issue is not how much the Republicans exceeded it, but the fact that the Democratic turnout for statewide midterm primaries was the lowest ever.

You know, I think the real story at this point is the lukewarm feelings that the Democrats, or people who are Democratic leaning, have for their own party.

RAZ: What does this say about the general elections, though? I mean, these were primaries. We know that primaries traditionally don't sort of attract as many voters as general elections. What about for November? What does this tell us?

Mr. GANS: Well, I think there is an enthusiasm gap. I think Republicans are, you know, very much going to turn out because they're angry and hopeful of winning. And I think there's going to be a falloff from the Democrats.

I mean, Barack Obama recruited an awful lot of young people, for instance, in 2008. I don't believe there's going to be a very high turnout of people in 2010 amongst young people. I also think there'll be a falloff amongst minorities, and I think there'll be a falloff of people who are basically disappointed.

You know, he has done some good things, you know, from the point of view of his party, but he hasn't solved the most critical question, which is the jobs question. And it looks like he can't solve that question at this point.

RAZ: That's Curtis Gans. He's the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University here in Washington, D.C.

Curtis Gans, thanks for stopping by.

Mr. GANS: Glad to be here.

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