Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The biggest redistricting myth

Let's get one thing straight about the redistricting fight underway in the state legislature. The current congressional districts that elected 17 Ds and 15 Rs in 2002 are not based on the ones that were drawn in 1991 by Rep. Martin Frost.
Republicans have been complaining recently that it is only fair that they be allowed to redraw the districts to correct for partisan gerrymandering that was done by the Democrats in 1991. Articles such as this one at National Review Online have served to perpetuate this myth:

"The current GOP plan pales in comparison to the plan it is meant to undo. According to (Michael) Barone that plan, drawn up by Rep. Martin Frost (D., Ft. Worth) in 1991, was "The most partisan redistricting in the '90 cycle in the nation." Barone's 1991 Almanac of American Politics called the Frost plan "the shrewdest gerrymander" of its time."

The current congressional districts were drawn from scratch by a group of federal judges using, in their words, "neutral districting factors." All the details of the redistricting process can be found
here and then look at the
opinion to see the judges' detailed description of the process they went through to draw up the current districts. Here is what they said about the 1991 plan that the Republicans are pretending to still be struggling against:

"The 1991 plan as modified in 1996 is conceded by all parties to be unconstitutional made so by changes in population disclosed by the dicennial census, if not for other reasons."

The judges did not rely on partisan politics to draw up the map but rather drew a plan based on neutral factors such as "compactness, contiguity and respecting county and municipal boundaries." The only districts they left intact were the majority-minority districts protected under the Voting Rights Act.

"Starting with a blank map of Texas, we first drew in the existing Voting Rights Act protected majority-minority districts. We were persuaded that the next step had to be to locate Districts 31 and 32, the two new Congressional seats allocated to Texas... We then drew in the remaining districts throughout the state emphasizing compactness, while observing the contiguity requirement...
"Doing so did much to end most of the below the surface ripples of the 1991 plan... For example, the patently irrational shapes of Districts 5 and 6 under the 1991 plan, widely cited as the most extreme but successful gerrymandering in the country, are no more."

The judges even made a point of checking their plan against statewide voting patterns and determined that it would "likely produce a congressional delegation roughly proportional to the party voting breakdown across the state."

So the current congressional districts were drawn up under a neutral system meant to correct the past gerrymandering while continuing the meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. This is why Gov. Rick Perry did not call for a special session prior to the 2002 general elections - because he knew that the gerrymandering from the previous redistricting had already been addressed.

However, the Republicans were surprised when they did not win as many congressional seats in 2002 as they thought they should have. Thus the mid-decade re-redistricting effort currently under way. But it is not the Democratic plan of 1991 that they are trying to replace, it is the neutral court-drawn plan of Nov. 2001 that they do not like. What they really want is their own gerrymandered districts, or as it should now be known - Perrymandered districts.

One other point that continues to be bantered about by conservatives and Republicans as a rationale for the re-redistricting is the fact that 56 to 54 percent of the votes cast in congressional races in 2002 went to Republicans and yet they only won 15 of the 32 seats. But this phenomenon was not due to Democratic gerrymandering in the 1990s that "disenfranchised" Republican voters - rather it was due to the fact that the Democrats failed to run viable competitive candidates in many of the congressional races, thus the Republican incumbents tended to win by lopsided margins while the Democratic incumbents tended to face well-financed challenges from Republican opponents and won their races by much smaller margins. Also, voter turnout in many of the majority-minority districts was way down - almost by half in some cases - compared to turnout in other areas that voted heavily for Republican incumbents.

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