Only an hour after a fairly friendly and bipartisan Texas legislative session ended, Governor Rick Perry called lawmakers back together to debate one of the most partisan and polarizing issues facing the legislature: redistricting.
The redistricting process, through which legislators redraw the state’s political boundaries in order to ensure elected officials represent the same number of constituents as his or her colleagues, is understandably contentious. The party that controls redistricting essentially controls the outcome of elections by defining which politicians will represent which voters.
Through redistricting, lawmakers are able to move political boundaries around to fit their needs, lumping supporters into their own districts and cutting out opponents. This has the effect of cutting voters out of the process, because the election’s outcome has been pre-determined by sophisticated manipulation of district lines.
Redistricting is so powerful that Texas Speaker Pete Laney has humorously credited it with doing something he “was never able to do as Speaker and that was organize the Democrats.” And for good reason: after the legislature passed the redistricting plan Laney was referring to, Congressional Democrats’ 17-15 majority quickly evaporated, becoming a 21-11 Republican majority.
Of course, none of this is currently unconstitutional or illegal. Aside from a federal ban on redistricting according to race and some state requirements regarding dividing communities, there are actually quite few prohibitions on how to conduct redistricting in Texas. A simple majority in the state legislature, instead, is allowed to draw up and pass maps in the same way they would pass any other bill.
The result is costly, both for taxpayers and for democracy. As of April 2012, the state had spent nearly $1.5 million in legal costs related to the most recent redistricting. The taxpayer tab has certainly risen significantly since then.
Additionally, redistricting legislative seats in a way that completely insulates lawmakers from a general election challenge has disturbing political consequences. Most obviously, these types of redistricting plans subvert the principles of democracy and accountability by allowing lawmakers to choose their constituents.
It also contributes to political polarization by shifting lawmakers’ focus from non-competitive general elections to primary elections in which they must often go to political extremes to fend off challengers. Keep in mind that turnout in primary elections is often low, allowing a small number of voters outsized influence over public policy. The 2010 election saw some of the highest turnout in recent Texas history – but even then, only about 17 percent of registered voters actually showed up at the polls.
Non-competitive general elections also depress voter turnout, because voters feel (rightly) that the election has already been decided by the primary election. Texas currently ranks 48th in the nation in voter turnout.
The guiding principles for redistricting reform are fairly straightforward: minimize the opportunities for political shenanigans, check majority control and clearly define in law what constitutes an acceptable redistricting plan.
This can be done in a number of ways, taking cues from redistricting systems in other states. For instance, it could take the form of a redistricting commission composed of eight legislators – four from each chamber, evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats chosen by their respective caucus chairs.
The commission could draw up a redistricting plan in accordance with specific requirements that regulate (in a measurable way) if a district is compact and contiguous. After that, they would submit the plan, via a majority vote, to the full legislature, which would have the opportunity to approve or reject the plans without amendment. Finally, if the commission or the legislature were unable to agree on a plan, the Texas Supreme Court would draw interim maps to use until the commission and the legislature completed a plan.
Redistricting reform in Texas is not unprecedented. After the legislature failed to pass redistricting plans in the 1930s and 1940s, voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the Legislative Redistricting Board. This board is tasked with stepping in and drawing up its own redistricting plan if the legislature fails to do, providing lawmakers with the incentive to pass redistricting plans on their own.
Although the Legislative Redistricting Board shares certain characteristics with the type of redistricting commission discussed earlier, it does not meet current reform needs. The party in power easily controls the board, rather than providing for a check on majority dominance. The board does not need legislative approval of its redistricting plan. And there are still no clearly defined measures to judge whether a redistricting map is acceptable.
Still, the existence of the Legislative Redistricting Board demonstrates that redistricting reform, though difficult, is not impossible. Texans have taken significant steps in the past to fix glaring problems with their redistricting system. They should do so again.