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The opening bars of the redistricting overture

Now that we have Census data, you know what comes next. Here’s an Express News story that discusses how redistricting will be different this time around.

Democrats still are smarting from the redistricting plan engineered in 2003 by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. The plan was adopted, for the first time, without the benefit of a new census or the threat of a court order. Although DeLay had no official role in the process, he and his allies in the Texas House went to work drawing a congressional map that targeted every Democrat in Congress. They were spectacularly successful.

Two things are different this time.

“DeLay had the muscle to make it happen, but there’s no DeLay around this time, and Dewhurst, because he’s running for the Senate, doesn’t want to make any enemies,” said political scientist Richard Murray of the University of Houston.

The second difference is a Justice Department run by a Democratic administration. Any redistricting plan the legislature draws must adhere to federal rules, most importantly voting rights rules. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act says minority areas can’t be diluted. Democrats complain that political appointees in the Bush Justice Department ignored those rules when they approved the DeLay-driven redistricting plan.

“We don’t need them (the Justice Department) to put the thumb on the scale to our advantage,” Democratic consultant Matt Angle said. “We just need them to be fair.”

Henry Flores, professor of political science and dean of the graduate school at St. Mary’s University, pointed out the strength of the GOP.

“The Republicans now have supermajority, so they don’t really have to negotiate with anybody on any plans. The Democrats are in the bleachers. They can leave the state if they want to, but that’s OK, nobody’s going to miss them.”

“Because a lot of the growth was driven by Hispanic areas, the way they rearrange the district lines is going to be very difficult. The new hybrid’s going to be the Hispanic-Republican district. Then what you have to worry about is: Will those new district pass muster in the U.S. Department of Justice?”

Actually, I’d argue there’s a third difference, which the Austin Chronicle pointed out last month:

Texas is one of several (mostly Southern) states with a history of racial discrimination that are required under the Voting Rights Act to have their plans precleared by either the Justice Department or the D.C. federal district courts. “For the first time since the 1960s, we have a Democratic Justice Department to review the lines through the Voting Rights Act,” said Karl-Thomas Musselman, publisher of Dem blog the Burnt Orange Report, at a gathering of the party faithful back in November 2010. This “will make a big difference.”

Other knowledgeable observers disagree and believe the Republicans won’t even bother with the Justice Department and will go directly to the courts. “I think what will happen is Republicans will say [the review process] is unfair,” [UT law professor] Steve Bickerstaff told the same gathering. “If [the GOP redistricting] is aggressive, you go to the court.”

[State Sen. Jeff] Wentworth, whose district includes part of South Austin, told the Chronicle the same thing. “I don’t believe it would be in Texas’ interest to even go the route of trying to get precleared by the Department of Justice,” Wentworth said. “We’ve always had the option of going to a three-judge federal court in the District of Columbia. We’ve never taken that route; we’ve always gone the preclearance route through the Voting Rights division of the DOJ. But I think that would be a waste of time in 2011, and I don’t believe we’re planning on doing that.”

Wentworth advises avoiding the DOJ because “they’re not only Democrats, they’re partisan Democrats. Before, you had a professional, career Voting Rights division [staff] at the Department of Justice. Now, you have a partisan Democratic Voting Rights division. Many of us, including me, are convinced that there’s not a map that we can draw that they would approve, so it’s a waste of time and money.” He says the Voting Rights division became more partisan “with this administration.” (In 2003, Democrats leveled similar charges at the Bush DOJ, noting that the career professionals in the Voting Rights division balked at the map but were overruled by Bush political appointees and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. As Bickerstaff noted, in 2005 The Washington Post uncovered a memo by the head of the division that supported these allegations. The Supreme Court indeed overruled one district in 2006 on VRA grounds, forcing the current map.)

Wentworth is clearly projecting about the Justice Department, but he’s right that it makes no sense for the Republicans to go to them for preclearance. Frankly, their ultimate goal is to overturn the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that it’s no longer needed. I don’t know how they can make that argument with a straight face, given the way they’ve operated before and will undoubtedly do again, but that won’t stop them from trying, and the DC district court is likely to be a sympathetic ear.

On a related matter, both Greg and PDiddie discuss this article by Rice U poli sci prof Mark Jones, entitled “Why Houston won’t send a Hispanic to Congress”. I don’t have anything to add to their analyses, which you should read, but I do have two things to add to the pile of things to think about. One is that for all the talk about how West Texas will surely lose one seat, maybe two, in the State House – Burka has suggested a likely target, though Warren Chisum’s RRC dreams may change that equation – but I’m not really sure West Texas gets to keep all of the Congressional districts it has now. Two West Texas districts, CDs 13 and 19 are below the target in population now, before four new seats get drawn; CD11 is just barely above, thanks to its inclusion of some Hill Country counties. I don’t think any of them are going to disappear, but as with the State Rep districts they’re likely to be much more closely anchored to the suburbs of Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio, which seems to me to present future problems for the Midland, Panhandle, and Lubbock-based incumbents.

And two, you have to wonder what electoral data the mapmakers are going to use to draw their lines. The 2012 electorate is going to look a lot like the 2008 electorate, maybe more so. Look at that last link above, and you can see that the GOP has three or four incumbents who are skating close to the edges of vulnerability in a year like that – Sessions, Marchant, and McCaul at the least, with Johnson, Carter, and Culberson not that far behind, and that’s before you try to shore up freshlings Canseco and Farenthold. Basing maps on 2010 returns will surely lead to overexposure, but basing them on 2008 returns will as surely be seen as insufficiently ambitious. Sessions, who won three straight close races before getting a breather last year, is an advocate of maxing the number of possible seats via 55-45 districts rather than making fewer incumbents feel more safe in 60-40 ones. But what’s the optimal strategy for a starting point when the long-term trends are going against you? That’s the question.

I should note that it’s hard to say what a “normal” electorate might look like based on what we saw last decade. 2002 was a moderate turnout election that was mostly good for Republicans. 2004 was a moderately high turnout election that was mostly good for Republicans but in which Democrats gained a seat in the Lege for the first time in over a decade. 2006 was a low turnout election that was good for Democrats. 2008 was a high turnout election that was very good for Democrats. 2010 was an off-the-charts high turnout year that was spectacular for Republicans. Barring anything unusual, I’d bet on 2012 being like 2008, but beyond that, who knows?

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