In Texas, it seems to happen every time. When it comes to redistricting — the redrawing of representative districts after each ten-year census — the Texas Legislature has gotten it wrong over and over again. The districts end up looking vaguely reptilian, squiggling across the map of Texas, with lines drawn in any way mathematically possible to obtain political advantage. This usually leads to protracted and legitimate contests over constitutionality in the federal courts; the last two redistricting attempts, in 2011 and 2013, are still being disputed in federal court.
A Texas district-drawing process controlled by partisan elected officials, and often employing a strategy of intentional discrimination of minority voters, has not only perpetuated racial discrimination, but also diminished real electoral competition. It has increasingly encouraged representatives in electorally safe districts to only pursue the desires of extreme partisans. These gerrymandered districts attack the heart of our system of representative government and undermine the legitimacy of our democracy.
Acknowledging the conflicts of interest in the traditional redistricting process and the harmful effects of gerrymandering, a number of states and localities have sought fundamental reform by reducing the direct involvement of politicians. They have turned the process over to independent citizen redistricting commissions.
With members chosen to be truly independent and not controlled by any one party, citizen redistricting commissions have reduced partisan polarization and increased electoral competition. They have been credited with enhancing representation and competitiveness, while improving the fit between legislative outcomes and the desires of voters — all without compromising the protection of minority rights.
A number of redistricting reform proposals have been filed in the Texas House (House Joint Resolutions 32, 74 and 118). Although the proposals vary slightly, they each would create independent commissions that are insulated from domination by a particular political party and could help achieve a more open and competitive electoral process. Unfortunately, these proposals are all still pending before the House Committee on Redistricting. Thus far, its chairperson, Rep. Cindy Burkett, a Sunnyvale Republican whose district includes much of the eastern part of the DFW Metro area, has failed to even give these proposed resolutions a hearing.
Significant redistricting reform proposals merit the Legislature’s attention:
• Across party lines, voters disapprove of gerrymandering. A 2013 Harris poll found that 7 in ten Americans believed that the practice of “drawing district lines so politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around” is fundamentally unfair.
• Technology has made it possible to gerrymander with surgical precision, resulting in districts where elections are decided in low-turnout primaries dominated by extremely partisan interests. Ordinary voters are left feeling their votes do not matter, and it has become easier to draw lines that disfavor minority representation.
• Any political party can become victim to partisan gerrymandering as political winds change. Both major political parties have been victims and perpetrators of partisan redistricting.
• In 2013, the city of Austin created the Austin Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission that successfully drew new city council district boundaries, working to ensure the districts were geographically contiguous and compact, minimizing the impact on distinct neighborhoods or communities of interest, and using existing election precinct and geographically identifiable boundaries.
• Citing the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Supreme Court has approved redistricting commissions as “advancing the prospect that Members of Congress will in fact be ‘chosen... By the People of the several states.’”
Our representative democracy depends on protecting the principle of “one person, one vote.” Leaving redistricting to the often-partisan Texas Legislature has resulted in unfairly drawn districts under both major political parties. Chairman Burkett, the Texas House Committee on Redistricting and indeed the entire Legislature should give due consideration to all aspects of this important public issue.