The People Have The Power – To Revamp Redistricting

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The people have the power. All we have to do is awaken the power in the people

John Lennon

Ready or not, redistricting is happening this year upon the delayed arrival of the 2020 Census data. Texas officials anticipate a September date, which could push back the 2022 elections into the summer. 

I recently read Steve Bickerstaff’s Gerrymandering Texas (2020) for Beto O’Rourke’s class about “Texas Democracy and the Fight for Representation” at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Combined with our discussion with Sam Wang of Princeton’s Election Consortium, the text left me with but one conclusion gesturing Patti Smith’s famed wisdom: the people have the power.

Sam Wang blew my mind when he told us how many congressional seats could flip if districts are drawn without partisan gerrymandering in place. The Center for American Progress found that unfairly drawn districts allowed an average of 59 candidates to ascend to Congress who wouldn’t have won without gerrymandered district lines during 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections. So as it turns out, our representation doesn’t even represent us.

In 2021, technology is better than ever at calculating district boundaries for a specific political outcome, leaving ripe the redistricting practice known as gerrymandering for Texas leadership looking to maintain their single-party rule over the state. Gerrymandering typically either results in partisan advantage or incumbent protection, or both. As a result, gerrymandering dilutes the power of a community’s voice for political self-interest. While some jurisdictions nationally prohibit voter history in redistricting practices, Texas has both the desire and the means to match election data from each election precinct to a corresponding Voting Tabulation District (VTD). This information allows officials to group or split voters based on how they previously voted. 

The history of redistricting practices in Texas

Redistricting in Texas arguably has a more contentious history than any other state due to its sheer size and unique demographics. Drawing Texas’ political maps are supposed to be the responsibility of the legislature. Still, it often gets kicked to the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB), which consists of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Comptroller of Public Accounts Glenn Hegar, Commissioner of the General Land Office George P. Bush, and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan – all Republicans, but more importantly, all from one party. On top of that, it is not just common but perhaps the norm that Texas political maps wind up in state and federal courts. In his book, Bickerstaff explains that district boundaries for state and congressional races have been drawn or adopted by a federal court since the 1970s. The Texas Supreme Court has held that state district courts have jurisdiction over the constitutionality of redistricting plans. The US Supreme Court, content to stay out of the politics of redistricting, had determined back in 1993 that federal courts defer to state courts. 

In other words, if it’s not the Republican legislature redrawing Texas state and congressional districts, it’s the Republican-controlled LRB. If a plaintiff sues over the plans, it heads to a conservative state court. I point out the political party not to be critical of Republicans, but to be critical of the hyper-partisan nature of the redistricting process, which is fundamental to American democracy and for the fair representation of the people.

Where the people come in

There is no constitutional provision that requires single-member congressional districts – rather, that is in federal statute. However, we as a nation seem to agree on the need for congressional and state districts to be drawn to best represent the people in their geography. History tells us that as long as politicians draw their districts, the product will be for their self-interest. Bickerstaff describes congressional redistricting as a litmus test of Republican and Democratic loyalty and duty: it has been a tradition for Texas to draw the boundaries in favor of confident incumbent lawmakers. It is long past time to take politicians out of the redistricting equation, maybe even completely.

As it stands, The Texas Constitution requires the State to divide state House and Senatorial districts. However, this fact can change with policy, public momentum, and political will. Many states and municipalities have already implemented independent redistricting commissions that are designed to be free from the grasp of political interests.

In fact, Austin’s people took back their power by voting to create a body of fourteen qualified non-elected citizens to draw city council district lines known as the Independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission through a petition and referendum in 2013. Any Austin resident can apply to join Austin’s ICRC as long as they have no ties to the City, and anyone can offer their map proposals through public hearings, creating one of the most participatory and transparent redistricting measures in the nation. Now, citizens of other cities such as Fort Worth want to implement the same procedure in their jurisdictions. I am honored to chair the Austin ICRC in its second term. Grassroots activism has allowed the will of the people to shine through the so-called democratic process. 

It seems to be so much harder to save democracy than to destroy it. Too many of our nation’s leaders are not leading in the democratic way they purport to be. The health of our democracy rests on the backs of everyday people, too many of whom are overworked and underpaid but care enough about American democracy to do whatever it takes to save it.