Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Texas Gerrymander

The New York Times
The Texas Gerrymander

The redrawing of election districts in Texas in 2003, which Tom DeLay helped engineer to make the state's Congressional delegation more Republican, lands in the Supreme Court today. Democrats are asking the court to rule that the plan is unconstitutional and violates the Voting Rights Act. The court should strike down the plan. It should also use the case to set limits on this kind of politically motivated drawing of districts by both parties, a practice that is making voters increasingly irrelevant.

Texas's 2003 redistricting was an extreme case of partisan gerrymandering. The state's Congressional lines had already been redrawn once, after the 2000 census, producing additional Republican seats in a way that a federal court decided was fair. But when Republicans took control of the state government, they decided to do a highly unusual second redistricting. Democratic state legislators protested and fled the state to deny the Republicans a quorum. But Texas eventually adopted a plan that tilted the state's delegation even further in the Republicans' favor.

The Supreme Court has acknowledged that partisan gerrymandering can violate the Constitution, but it has had trouble setting out a workable standard. In a Pennsylvania case two years ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the deciding vote to dismiss a gerrymandering claim, but he suggested that courts could intervene in such cases "if some limited and precise rationale" could be found for doing so. In the Texas case, Democrats put forward such a standard: that "the Constitution prohibits legislators from redrawing election districts in the middle of a decade solely to achieve partisan advantage."

The Texas plan should be struck down on that ground, and because it violates the principle of one person one vote. More than a million people were added to the Texas population between the census and the 2003 redistricting. These new arrivals were not distributed equally, and it is likely that they were disproportionately Hispanic. The state used outdated 2000 population data to draw the 2003 lines, producing districts that failed to give all of the state's voters equal representation in Congress.

The Texas voters challenging the plan also make a strong claim that it violates the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department signed off on the plan, but in doing so, as The Washington Post reported, its political appointees overruled the unanimous conclusion of six lawyers and two analysts in the voting rights section who had concluded that the new lines illegally reduced black and Hispanic voting strength.

Partisan gerrymandering should be a bipartisan issue because both parties have been hurt by it and no doubt will be again. Its real victims, though, are the voters.

Nationally, the lines drawn for 2002 produced the least competitive Congressional elections in history — challengers beat just four incumbents, and fewer than 40 races were even minimally competitive. If the Supreme Court permits those drawing legislative lines to use high-powered computers to create district lines that predetermine the outcomes of all but a handful of Congressional races, America may need to come up with another word for its form of government, because "democracy" will hardly apply.