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Where to draw the line?

A partisan Republican would be thrilled with the outcome of the Texas redistricting fight.

Gov. Rick Perry announced late Monday that he had signed the bill, which received final passage in the Texas Senate on Sunday night along largely partisan lines, 17 to 14.

Political scientists and other analysts on Monday identified 8 of the 17 Texas Democrats in Congress whose seats seem at risk under the remapping. Another district created around Midland, in West Texas, seemed clearly earmarked for the Republicans, who hope to pick up as many as seven seats next year. This would raise the number of Texas Republicans in the House to as many as 22 from the current 15.

Partisan Democrats, of course, are dismayed. (As, needless to say, is the New York Times.) But what about those of us less interested in partisan scorekeeping, and more interested in ensuring a reasonable process? How should we feel?

On the one hand, this does feel rather heavy-handed. It's a blatant partisan power grab by Republicans, and at that, a grab that goes outside the usual channels; as is well known, districting typically takes place only once per decade, and this decade's districting has already been completed in Texas. Republicans are simply taking advantage of the fact that they have more power in the Austin legislature to force through an extra round of districting that will benefit from them.

On the other hand, the previous districts were hardly sacred; they were drawn up by a Democratic-leaning judicial panel after the legislature couldn't reach agreement on a plan, and they do not appear to accurately reflect the political views of the citizens of Texas. It's not clear why, just because Democrats happened to have more power a year ago, they should get to freeze their advantage in place for another ten years. And it's not as if Democrats are standing up for grand principle here:

Several of the Democrats at risk including two congressmen with nearly 50 years of experience between them reacted angrily on Monday, saying the map was an effort to concentrate African-American and Hispanic voters in certain districts and paint Democrats as the party of minority voters, costing them white support.


Mr. Frost said the changes were harmful enough to minority voters to require rejection by the Justice Department or the courts. A Republican tactic against the Democrats, he said, is to eliminate all white officials of consequence, so white voters will not identify with the Democratic party.

Ah. So really, it's all about picking up all the minority votes without appearing too minority-friendly. Hardly the substance of Federalist-Antifederalist debates.

And on the third hand, the typical genteel, congenial, collegial approach, the one preferred by the editorialists and the other good government types, involves a process which in some ways is far more sinister. It involves a process in which both parties get together and draw lines in such a way as to protect each party's incumbents. Certainly the party with more electoral clout attempts to gain an advantage -- but in such a way as to minimize the effects on each side. Is that really preferable to the DeLay plan? The latter may be one-sided, but at least it's honest. It doesn't masquerade as anything other than the partisan power grab that it is. Voters can decide what they think of such flagrant partisanship, and approve or disapprove in a straightforward manner. Politicians don't have the cover of civility to mask their self-interested intentions.

I would have far more sympathy for Democrats in Texas if it seemed that they cared about anything here other than their own jobs. As long as they're only interested in their own partisan advantage, why should I care? Until they stand up for real principle, they don't deserve anything other than what they're getting. So what is the right approach, the one I could get behind?

Simple: End gerrymandering altogether. The problem with what's going on in Texas isn't that Republicans are drawing lines which hurt Democrats more than is seemly. The problem is that Republicans are drawing lines on a partisan basis. Partisan gerrymandering has always existed, of course, but politicians are so much better at it than they used to be; sophisticated software has made it possible to draw and redraw, down to the block level, until the optimal amount of gerrymandering has taken place. And to what end? Incumbent protection, of course. Every year, we hear about how there are so few competitive House races, how out of 435 seats up for reelection only a few dozen are actually in danger of changing hands. And no, it isn't because of insufficient campaign finance reform. It's because the other ~400 districts are drawn so that nobody from the other party could possibly win the seat.

Coming up with neutral nonpartisan (note: not bipartisan) algorithms to use in drawing districts, such that any partisan advantage in any decade is purely by chance, would solve many problems.

  1. It would increase the competitiveness of House races, giving citizens more of a choice. Without requiring a resort to unconstitutional campaign finance censorship.
  2. It would depolarize the House; a candidate who has a mixed constituency in his district has to govern closer to the center, rather than running towards the extremes of his party base.
  3. It would eliminate the decadely redistricting fights in the state capitals, and obviate the need for federal judges to step in and draw lines when those fights fail to reach a resolution.
  4. It would hopefully lessen the number of career politicians; fewer safe seats means politicians have to work to keep their jobs, which limits the attractiveness of the job to many of them.

I don't mean to suggest that this is a panacea; there are some problems this approach can't fix, and might even cause. (For instance, fewer safe seats = more competitive races = more need for fundraising.) Senators have mixed constituencies, and yet many -- Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond, just to name two on either end of the spectrum -- have managed to become career senators. Still it's certainly worth a try, don't you think?


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Comments (1)


I've always been a fan of letting the computer decide - that is, let it find the "most contiguous" solution to the problem of dividing a population up into N equally-populated districts. An expert mathematician and an expert computer scientist together could write the program in a weekend or two. Keep (potentially unconciously biased) people out of it altogether, except to type "run program" every ten years.


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