Abbott should fix Texas' problems before amending U.S. Constitution

Photo by John Jordan

I read with unease Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to ask the Texas Legislature, when it meets in 2017, to approve a convention of states for the purpose of amending our U.S. Constitution. It alarmed me, not just because Abbott believes we should alter the most important document in America's 240-year history but also because he intends to initiate the amendment process by going through a Texas Legislature that was elected by less than a majority of Texans.

Democracy depends on the push and pull of competitive elections and an engaged electorate. When government totally eradicates competition and shrugs off its obligation to ensure fairness in the election process, it should come as no surprise that voters will refuse to engage in it.

Two of the nine amendments that Abbott intends to pursue are particularly troubling. Together, they would "allow a two-thirds majority of the States to override a U.S. Supreme Court decision" as well as "a federal law or regulation." These amendments would give unprecedented power to state "delegates" to overcome federal authority that the Constitution has very delicately assigned separately to the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress and the president. Abbott justifies these proposals in part by pointing to the "accountability" of state elections, which he says would "restore the people ... to the role of the truly supreme arbiter of the Constitution." Abbott acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution offers legitimacy to the policy choices made by our state and federal representatives because they "have to stand for election."

The problem with this argument is that election outcomes today, even in Abbott's own state, do not necessarily reflect the will of "the majority of people." Less than 35 percent of the Texas electorate actually votes. Consequently, the legitimacy of the policy choices made by our representatives is far from sound. Texas has to do more to ensure that election outcomes accurately reflect the sentiment of the majority of Texans before this state can begin to presume that it is closer to "the people" than its federal counterpart.

Accordingly, instead of the two amendments that would give more power to states, I would ask Abbott to consider proposing an amendment, to both the federal and state constitutions, banning partisan gerrymandering. If adopted, this single amendment would do more than any other to eliminate threats to our democracy and give more power directly to the people.

Gerrymandering is making Texas elections increasingly anti-democratic. In Texas, we elect our state representatives from 150 state house districts and 31 state senate districts. State district boundaries are redrawn every 10 years following the dissemination of the U.S. Census to accommodate population growth and/or shifts, and to comply with the Constitution's one person, one vote rule.

Article III, Section 28 of the Texas Constitution assigns the task of drawing our districts first to the Texas Legislature — meaning the people most interested in the outcome are put in charge of the process. Unsurprisingly, the resulting district lines invariably protect incumbents from competitive general elections and guarantee that the party in power stays in power.

Politicians have gotten so skilled at maximizing their chances for re-election that Republicans currently enjoy an almost two-to-one lead over Democrats in the Legislature, and they have control of all statewide elected offices. Some might argue that such Republican dominance only confirms that Texas is truly a conservative state, but with so few people turning out to vote, that claim is dubious.

Democracy depends on the push and pull of competitive elections and an engaged electorate. When government totally eradicates competition and shrugs off its obligation to ensure fairness in the election process, it should come as no surprise that voters will refuse to engage in it. Disenfranchisement may be good for incumbent politicians, but it is bad for democracy and bad for Texas. Clearly, how we draw our district lines must change so that more competition is possible in general elections.

This is not a partisan issue. The Republican Party is in power now, but that was not always true. In 1978, Democrats in Texas held all but one statewide office, and they totaled 160 out of the 181-member Texas House and Senate. Although voter turnout was better then, it was still lower than it should have been because Democrats were just as guilty of manipulating district lines for partisan advantage. In light of Texas' changing demographics, the pendulum is sure to swing back to Democrats at some point. Unless we fix our gerrymandering problem, we will see, once again, the same kind of extremism inevitably develop on the left.

I agree that the U.S. Constitution could use some tweaking, but before Abbott takes on the immense task of fixing all that is wrong with our federal government, he should first fix what is wrong in Texas. And right now, ceding even more power to our Texas Legislature — a body that already wields more power than it should — is not the solution.

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