August 10, 2003

Somewhere between 2000 and 5000 people rallied in Austin against redistricting, depending on which account you read ("about 5000 Democratic activists", "As many as 5000 people from across the state", "between 2000 and 4000 rowdy protesters", "about 4000 people"). It's an impressive figure no matter how you slice it when you consider it was a Saturday in summer and 100 degrees outside. 40 buses from all over the state brought people in for the rally.

There are a variety of quotes and anecdotes from the rally in each paper, but as is often the case in a story like this, the key to getting noticed is to be a little different. Three of the four papers (there was nothing in the Star-Telegram) carried a variation on this:

Killeen Mayor Maureen Jouett told the rally outside the state Capitol that she had voted in the Republican primary in 2002 and had been a "Mayor for Perry" in that year's elections. She said the congressional district that includes Killeen is overwhelmingly Republican, but it elects U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.


"Now, because someone doesn't like who we voted for, they want to change the map again," Jouett said.

And two of the four had this at the end:

A handful of Republicans were on hand to voice their support of the redistricting effort.

"Republicans voted for governor, lieutenant governor, Texas Senate, Texas House, and Texas resident President Bush is commander-in-chief," said Dana Petroni, a Katy resident, who drove to Austin for the rally. "Redistricting is a legislative process, not a judicial process."

The Statesman has an analysis of redistricting arguments whose headline says that both parties are right and wrong, but whose text seems to lean towards the Democratic side.

The GOP effort is confounded by the constant need to explain why redistricting, usually an activity enjoyed in post-census years that end with the digit 1, is going on in a year that ends with the digit 3. The GOP answer, arguably defensible, is based on process: The current map was drawn by federal judges in 2001 after the Legislature (then with a Democratic majority in the House) failed to act (largely because Republicans, pretty sure they'd have complete control in 2003, balked).

The GOP justification for the extraordinary current process is also backed by politics. Democrats hold a 17-15 edge in the state's U.S. House delegation. As the new millennium unfolds, there is little on which to base an argument that there should be a Democratic-majority anything in Texas.

But here's the biggest problem with the GOP argument for drawing new lines. An overwhelming majority of Texans fall into one of two categories:

1. They like their current U.S. House member.

2. They have no idea who their current House member is.

It's a powerful combination that doubles the difficulty Republicans have in explaining why they're doing what they're doing.

"Redistricting is so far down the list of things people care about now that it wouldn't make the top 10,000," Austin activist Robin Rather said at a recent gathering of local Democrats opposed to redistricting.

Republicans, prevail though they might, have managed to get the Democratic base, small though it is, excited in a way it has not been since Ann Richards was lighting up crowds with her incomparable stage presence.

Suddenly, mild-mannered Democratic lawmakers such as Rep. Elliott Naishtat of Austin are rock 'n' roll icons as they are welcomed at Democratic events across the nation.

"The whole room went crazy," Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam, leader of the House trip to Oklahoma in May, said of his recent appearance at a Texas AFL-CIO convention.

The Democratic Party line on redistricting also is not without holes, starting perhaps with the fact that they find themselves where they are because they have trouble winning elections.

It's a party without an identifiable leader, devoid of solid statewide candidates and about as low as it can be and still carry the tag "major party." And, like the Republicans, the Democrats' attempt to take the moral high ground in redistricting is confounded by reality.

Hispanic Democrats argue that Republicans are out to sap the voting rights strength of their community. It's an argument that would ring truer if more Hispanics showed more of an interest in participating in the activity.

Though there has been improvement, the historically low turnout among Hispanics is among the causes of the Democratic decline in Texas.

Finally, the Chron has an op-ed piece that suggests some alternatives to ordinary Congressional districts.

What if Texas told each party to put up a slate of 32 candidates, with voters choosing one slate or the other? Texas congressional election would be winner take all, which is known as an at-large election. Talk about upping the political ante.

The argument against at-large elections is pretty straightforward: rural and other low-population areas would get no representation. I can't believe such a thing would survive a Votings Rights Act challenge nowadays.

Alternative #2 is multi-member districts:

[M]ulti-member districts would group voters into natural communities. Under single-member districts, large cities like Houston are artificially sliced apart into districts. The district lines often twist and turn, up one street and down another, dividing neighbors into separate voting blocks. The result can be district maps that look more like Rorschach ink blots than geographic boundaries. Multi-member districts keep communities together, allowing neighbors to vote together for several representatives.

A second advantage of multi-member districts is less incentive for pork barrel politics. When a representative hails from a small, single-member district, she feels pressure to satisfy the voters' petty, local interests. But, if she represents a large, multi-member district, she answers to a more diverse electorate where the power of any single interest group is reduced. That is why U.S. senators, who are elected statewide, are less inclined to local pork than their colleagues in the House.

Some fear that multi-member districts dilute the voting power of racial, ethnic or political minorities. Single-member districts guarantee minorities a small number of safe districts, while large, multi-member districts threaten to overwhelm their votes. But, multi-member districts could just as easily have the opposite effect. If a large, multi-member district is evenly divided between the major parties, minorities could prove the crucial swing voters, magnifying their influence beyond their numbers.

That actually seems pretty reasonable to me, though you still have to decide where those districts are, and I'd bet that fight would be as nasty as the current one.

We should have some court rulings early next week. Stay tuned.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 10, 2003 to Killer D's | TrackBack

Both are interesting suggestions, but there is a good chance it could Texas into trouble. Single-member districts are the law of the land (I believe its somewhere in Title 5 of the US Code).

I'll find a reference for you.

Posted by: Jim D on August 10, 2003 5:59 PM

At large elections have also been found to violate the 14th Amendment. See Rogers v. Lodge.

I personally would like to see proportionate voting across the board, but my opinion doesn't count for much.

Posted by: phil on August 11, 2003 9:00 AM

The multi-member district solution is interesting. You mentioned the idea that single-member districts guarantee minorities at least a few safe districts, whereas they might lose power when grouped in more diverse areas.

In St. Louis, there's a similar situation. A long time ago, I think somewhere around 1900, the city of St. Louis was part of St. Louis county. Then, for whatever reason, they decided to separate from the county. So now we have St. Louis County, and the City of St. Louis County (confusing, yes). The split came when St. Louis was a much bigger city, I think 800,000, and the County wasn't very developed. You can guess where this is going: the County is now quite affluent and the City's population has dwindled to something like 350,000.

There's always been this talk of reuniting the City and County, in order to provide the City with a bigger tax base, but a lot of minority leaders seem to be opposed to the idea, saying they'd be disenfranchised. I have no idea if they're right or not. But that's an interesting parallel. I'd like to see someone do a study on whether or not that process actually does enfranchise or disenfranchise anyone.

Posted by: nota bene on August 11, 2003 2:29 PM