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Gerrymandering Is a Texas Tradition Whose Time Has Come and Gone

Texas gets a new set of statewide elected officials next year — but one thing that won’t have changed is that the state will find itself embroiled in complicated and expensive redistricting litigation, just as it has in each of the last four decades.

November 24, 2014

Cross-posted on My San Antonio

Texas gets a new set of statewide elected officials next year — but one thing that won’t have changed is that the state will find itself embroiled in complicated and expensive redistricting litigation, just as it has in each of the last four decades. In fact, it is very likely that sometime next year, the Supreme Court will take up yet another major Texas redistricting case.

In some ways, Texas’ penchant for breaking ground in redistricting law isn’t surprising. Texas long has been among the nation’s fast-growing states — one with a complicated ethnic mix, and lots of jockeying and jostling for power and representation.

The fights over district lines often have been no-holds-barred, with the leaders of the day, be they Democrats or Republicans, pressing for maximum advantage and letting the courts decide if they went too far.

The result has been frequent, head-spinning map changes.

In 1991, the Democrats redrew the state’s congressional map to create what the Almanac of American Politics called “the shrewdest gerrymander of the 1990s . . . with incredibly convoluted lines . . . pack(ing) heavily Republican suburban areas into just a few districts.” The resulting firestorm of litigation ended when a federal court voided primary elections in 13 districts and imposed a court-drawn map.

In 2003, it was the Republicans’ turn to gerrymander, resulting in the famous flight of Democrats to New Mexico and then Oklahoma in an ultimately futile effort to block the maps. That round of redistricting also resulted in a trip for Texas to the Supreme Court.

The most recent round of redistricting potentially could be the biggest clash yet.

Between 2000 and 2010, Texas added a record 4.3 million people, of whom 66 percent were Hispanic and more than 90 percent were non-Anglo. Concurrent with this demographic revolution, Republicans captured near super-majorities in both chambers of the Texas Legislature, almost entirely on the strength of Anglo voters. That brought with it intense pressure on GOP lawmakers to find a way to cement those gains at both the congressional and legislative levels.

Minority groups say the only way lawmakers were able to do so was by deliberately undermining the political strength of the state’s growing minority population.

A panel of three federal judges in San Antonio will decide in the next few months whether they are right.

A separate panel of federal judges in Washington, D.C., already found the same maps discriminatory, a ruling put on hold because the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act.

If African-American and Hispanic voters succeed in proving that the 2011 maps were drawn with the intent to discriminate, it would set the stage for Texas being put back under federal supervision for a decade or longer under the Voting Rights Act. That would mean that all of the state’s election laws potentially would again need to be preapproved by a federal court or the Justice Department before they could go into effect.

That’s a high price to pay for maps that, at most, netted Republicans a handful of additional seats in a Legislature they appear set to dominate for the foreseeable future.

Gerrymandering is not unique to Texas, of course. In Illinois this cycle, Democrats pushed through a redistricting plan that transformed the majority of Republican safe seats into Democratic-leaning ones.

And in Pennsylvania, a Republican gerrymander — considered by many to be among the nation’s worst — left Democrats holding just five of 18 congressional seats in a state that Barack Obama won in both 2008 and 2012.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

An increasing number of states, ranging from blue states such as California to red states such as Idaho, have taken the power to draw district lines out of the hands of politicians and given it to independent citizen commissions.

Other states, such as Iowa, have chosen to use citizen commissions in an advisory capacity, charging commissions with coming up with maps in the first instance but giving their legislature the final say.

Still other states such as Florida have left map-drawing power entirely in legislative hands but have imposed tighter rules on what legislators can and cannot do in drawing maps.

It is too early to say how these measures will perform over the long haul. But the initial signs are encouraging.

Before 2010, California’s congressional map had been drawn in a way that guaranteed every single congressional district would be safe for one party or the other. The districts were so safe for incumbents, in fact, that in the five elections between 2001 and 2010, exactly one congressional district changed hands.

In 2011, with line-drawing in the hands of a commission, the result was a map that in the words of one commentator “radically, and more logically, rearranged” the state’s 53 congressional districts and helped foster competitive races for the first time in decades.

In 2014, five of the state’s congressional districts remained undecided on election night, with pickup chances for Republicans unimaginable just four years ago.

Likewise, in Florida, a state court judge was able to use the new Florida redistricting laws to invalidate a map he found had been secretly drawn to favor one party — an important win that contrasts with the paucity of meaningful state-level constraints on redistricting in many states, including Texas.

No system is perfect, and it would be foolish to think that politics can be taken totally out of redistricting. Attempts by self-interested politicians to rig redistricting, after all, are literally as old as the Republic.

In 1788, Patrick Henry attempted to have the Virginia House of Delegates draw the state’s very first congressional districts in a way that he believed would have made it hard for James Madison to win a seat in the new Congress. Madison won anyway.

But reforms around the country have shown that it is possible for states such as Texas to make next decade’s redistricting process more transparent, more participatory, less litigious, less time-consuming and less of an exercise in the sort of backroom deals that voters of both parties detest.

To be sure, many Republicans will voice the same objections about the potential loss of partisan advantage that Democrats raised when they were the state’s dominant party. But even with reform, Texas looks certain to remain dominated by Republicans for a foreseeable future — just as California remains a blue state and Idaho remains a red one.

Residential self-sorting and deep partisan preferences take care of that. Redistricting reform is less about partisan control than about creating a process that makes more sense to voters, is better for taxpayers, and gives Texans — not the federal courts — the biggest voice in what the state’s maps look like.

With the state gaining new statewide leadership for the first time in a decade, and with the next round of redistricting some time away, Texans have a unique opportunity in the 84th Legislature to take a bold step away from five decades of redistricting missteps by both parties.

The question is whether they are ready to try.

(Photo: Flickr/MauryMcCown)