Mike Kueber's Blog

June 2, 2011

Congressional-redistricting surprise – the politicians win while the voters lose

The Republicans in the Texas legislature have finally released their congressional redistricting proposal for the 2012 elections, and Rich Dunham has provided an excellent analysis of the winners and losers.   According to Dunham, Ft. Worth, San Antonio, and the Valley were the big winners while Austin, Houston, and Dallas were the big losers.

Because of the state’s (mostly Hispanic) population gains, Texas will have four additional House districts, for a total of 36.  Three of the new districts will be in Ft. Worth, San Antonio, and the Valley, and local politicos are already plotting their next moves.  Dunham categorizes Austin,
Dallas, and Houston as losers because they were carved up and mixed with voters from outlying areas to diminish their ability to effect the election of big-city politicians.

There is a new saying in politics that, because of gerrymandering, voters no longer pick the politicians, but rather the politicians pick their voters, and this latest round of gerrymandering certainly proves that point.  A cursory look at the redistricted map shows that the new congressional districts are inexplicably configured.   The only way you can make sense out of the map is to know whether an area has Republican voters or Democratic voters.

Republican map-makers have drawn the district boundaries so that there are just enough Republicans in a district to win the election, but not so many as to win a landslide.  By contrast, a few districts are packed with huge percentages of Democrats to ensure the election of a fire-breathing
extremist in those few districts.  As the districts have now been re-drawn, Texas is expected to elect 26 Republicans and 10 Democrats to Congress.

Gerrymandering is horribly unfair to the voters because it makes a mockery of the principle that voters in a district should have a community of interests.  District 23, which I ran in last year, is a perfect example.  One-third of its voters live in far northwest San Antonio, which is primarily filled with Anglo Republican voters and another third live in far south San Antonio, which is primarily filled with Hispanic Democratic voters.  The final third of its voters live is west Texas, stretching 500 miles from the outskirts of San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso.  This ranching area
is filled with approximately equal amounts of Hispanic Democrats and Anglo Republicans.

Because of the configuration of District 23, the ranching West Texas community of voters is assured of having a distant outsider represent them, and either the north or the south sides of San Antonio are assured of having a congressman who is antithetical to their interests.

If you think District 23 sounds like a competitive district, you would be correct.  In fact, it is one of the few competitive districts in Texas.  In 2008, it voted for Obama and re-elected a Democratic congressman (Rodriguez), but in 2010 it voted for Democratic candidate for governor (White), but threw out the Democratic congressman and voted in a Republican (Canseco).

With Republicans in charge of drawing the boundary lines for 2012, you know that they did some tweaking to squeeze a few more Republicans into this erstwhile competitive district and to squeeze out a few Democrats.  According to the reported numbers, the newly re-drawn District 23 voted for Rick Perry for governor in 2010, so that should make the district safely Republican in 2012.

Texas has a history of being lackadaisical about fair redistricting.  In fact, it went 30 years from the 1920s to the 1950s without redistricting its legislature until the federal courts finally decided to require “one person, one vote” throughout the nation.  And because Texas has a history of not being fair with the voting rights of minorities, Texas is still subject to prior-approval of all redistricting plans under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  For an excellent review of Texas’s redistricting history and laws, see the white paper by the Texas Legislative Council (TLC).

This white paper by the TLC explains that gerrymandering of congressional districts is even more distorted than state districts because the federal constitution fails to provide any restrictions on the process whereas Section 26 of the Texas constitution wisely provides the following:

  • The members of the House of Representatives shall be apportioned among the several counties, according to the number of population in each, as nearly as may be, on a ratio obtained by dividing the population of the State, as ascertained by the most recent United States census, by the number of members of which the House is composed; provided, that whenever a single county has sufficient population to be entitled to a Representative, such county shall be formed into a separate Representative District, and when two or more counties are required to make up the ratio of representation, such counties shall be contiguous to each other; and when any one county has more than sufficient population to be entitled to one or more Representatives, such Representative or Representatives shall be apportioned to such county, and for any surplus of population it may be joined in a Representative District with any other contiguous county or counties.

Although Section 26 doesn’t specifically provide for compactness, it indirectly accomplishes this by its so-called “county line” rule, and this is reflected by the Texas House redistricting map.    Unfortunately, the Texas legislature does not apply the county-line rule to congressional redistricting because that would limit their ability to effectively gerrymander the districts to maximize the number of Republican members in Congress, which is all they care about.  They don’t care that voters in rural El Paso will always be represented by a congressperson who lives 500 miles away in San Antonio.

Of course, Democrats are not innocent victims here.  As pointed out by Rich Dunham in the analysis cited above, Democrats engaged in gerrymandering just as egregious until they lost control of the legislature a decade ago.

I have no doubt that the voters of Texas believe in election fairness and have nothing but antipathy toward gerrymandering, but it’s an issue analogous to term limits and lawmaker pay & pensions – i.e., lawmakers are able to obfuscate and filibuster to thwart the will of the people.  Representative democracy has its limitations.

One solution to all of this dysfunction would be for Texas voters to have a right to initiatives and referendum.  I can’t think of a more significant to improve the functioning of government in Texas.


  1. Mike,

    Our Representative, Lloyd Doggett, (D) is crying foul because the rights of Travis County voters have been trampled. It is an outrage if you listen to him.

    While I agree that we have been gerrymandered into insignificance, it is always amusing to me that career politicians are consistent in two regards: 1) saying that the people have spoken for good and honest government whenever they win an election and 2) saying that the people’s rights are being trampled whenever they lose their seats.


    Comment by Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez — June 2, 2011 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

    • Being Gerrymandered into “insignificance” is amusing? Doggett was my congerssman (and state senator) for many years, and is a decent and honorable man. “You don’t miss your water ’till the well runs dry.”

      Comment by Edwin Mole — August 23, 2011 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

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