We’re in the spotlight right now.
The odd shapes tell the story.
A huge Republican majority in the Houston-area 2nd congressional district represented by Ted Poe curls around the region from Lake Houston, northeast of the city, makes a meandering, snakelike loop out to the western suburbs, and ends south of downtown near Loop 610.
Nearby, the 29th congressional district has a big Democratic majority and is represented by Gene Green. It resembles a partially-eaten doughnut, forming an undulating shape from north to east to south.
Like virtually all 36 congressional districts in Texas – Republican Will Hurd’s West Texas district being the only exception – neither Poe’s nor Green’s district is particularly competitive in general elections.
The political art of drawing boundaries to protect incumbents is called gerrymandering – a word derived from salamanders, lizard-like creatures known for their slender bodies and short limbs. The whole idea behind the practice is to carve up the political map for partisan advantage.
It happens everywhere, and has been the subject of legal challenges for years.
And now the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled it may take a fresh look in a Wisconsin redistricting case that has the potential to fundamentally alter the political landscape from Texas to Washington, D.C.
“Clearly the Texas congressional map, and the state House map and state Senate map, are partisanly gerrymandered, and they are way out of balance with the political performance of the state,” said Matt Angle, head of the Lone Star Project, which seeks to make Democratic gains in Texas.
Some Republicans downplay the significance of the Wisconsin case, saying that they believe Texas’ political boundaries are already fair and, most importantly, legal.
“Unless the court does some serious overreach, we shouldn’t be facing needing to redraw those lines at all,” said James Dickey, the newly-elected chairman of the Texas Republican Party.
The problem for Texas Republicans is that the state’s congressional district boundaries already are under legal challenge over alleged racial discrimination for the way minorities were packed into a limited number of urban districts.
Some of the boundaries drawn in 2011 already have been ruled intentionally discriminatory, and a federal court is set to hear a challenge next month on a new map drawn in 2013.
Unlike the Texas challenge, which focuses in the racial makeup of political districts, the legal fight in Wisconsin is over the partisan makeup of the state’s boundaries, which also favor Republicans.
But the two criteria are closely related. “If you correct for the racial discrimination in Texas, you go a long way toward balancing the partisan makeup of these districts,” Angle said.
In Texas, Angle argues, “There’s no question what’s happened is you’ve got safe districts created, Democrats packed into as few districts as possible, and the rest of them cracked into as many safe Republican districts as possible, and what that’s done is it’s made the primaries matter the most, and primaries are driven by the most ideological people within their party.”
In the Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, the court will be asked to look at the allegedly skewed results of the state’s recent elections. In 2012, Republicans won 60 of 99 legislative seats despite winning only 48.6 percent of the state’s two-party statewide vote. In 2014, Republicans won 63 seats with only 52 percent of the statewide vote.
Texas Democrats say they could make the same case. While Democratic presidential candidates won more than 40 percent of the statewide vote in the past three elections, Democratic voters were distributed in such a way that their party controls only about a third of the state’s legislative and congressional seats.
Critics call that an “efficiency gap,” which can only be explained by partisan gerrymandering. Now before the high court, they hope to find a way to close the gap.
“This is a historic opportunity to address one of the biggest problems in our electoral system,” said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning law and public policy institute at the New York University School of Law. “Gerrymandering has become so aggressive, extreme and effective that there is an urgent need for the Supreme Court to step in and set boundaries.”
Conservative groups argue that there is no way to estimate what each party “should” win in a fair election. The redistricting tests that have been proposed to close the “efficiency gap” in Wisconsin, they say, are arbitrary.
See here for more on the Wisconsin case, which will not affect the ongoing Texas litigation at this time. Poe’s district is certainly a Republican one, and for most of this decade it was deep red, but after a significant Democratic shift in 2016, it’s still very favorable to Republicans but not overwhelmingly so. Given the overall trends in Harris County, I suspect that the fate of CD02 in the 2021 redistricting cycle will be to take on a piece of Montgomery County in order to keep it sufficiently Republican, much as Pete Sessions’ CD32 needed to incorporate some of Collin County in 2011 to stay red.
It’s really hard to say what will happen going forward. Between the Texas case and the Wisconsin and North Carolina cases, the range of outcomes stretches from “no real difference” to multiple seats flipping this year with fewer ways for the Republicans to put their thumb on the scale in 2021. As I’ve noted before, Texas isn’t all that out of whack in terms of how many seats each party wins, but Republicans have gained a huge advantage in multiple swing states thanks to having gained control of those states’ legislatures in 2010. SCOTUS could put a stop to that going forward, or they could just apply a remedy to Texas for its own brand of egregious gerrymandering, or they could shrug their shoulders and decline to get involved. We’ll just have to wait and see.