Mike Kueber's Blog

March 1, 2012

Gerrymandering back in the news

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:20 pm
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Two stories in the news yesterday – one local and one national – provide a stark contrast between gerrymandering and redistricting. 

The local story involved the judicial review of Texas’s gerrymandered congressional districts.  A panel of federal judges in San Antonio attempted for the second time to ameliorate the severely gerrymandered districts, and not surprisingly none of the partisans was happy.  Republicans continued to believe that the judges showed too much judicial activism, while Democrats argued that the judges were too deferential.    

An article in the San Antonio Express-News focused on the Harlandale school district, which is a small, poor school district in the middle of south San Antonio.  The district has traditionally been a part of Congressional District 23, but with the new gerrymandered districts, the school district has been divided into three congressional districts – 20, 23, and 35.  Former District 23 Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, speechifying from the Harlandale district, legitimately argued, “The community is being divided, and the proof is right here.” 

But it is not just residents of the south side of San Antonio that are being abused by the Republican gerrymandering.  I live in northwest San Antonio in Congressional District #20, and if I were to drive east across north San Antonio for 40 miles, I would cross into five other districts – 23, 21, 35, 28, and 15.  Does that make sense for us Northsiders to have our congressional representation divvied up among six congressmen?  From what I have read, most people would rather have one full-time congressman fully committed to them than several part-time congressmen whose attention and loyalty are divided.

Austin and Travis County, because of their strong Democratic voting patterns, were particularly abused by the Republicans’ gerrymandering.  Travis County was divided into five separate districts, each of which was attached to a significant number of non-Travis voters.  Thus, Travis County, with a population in excess of 1 million, will control the election of zero congressmen.  Its one minority-majority district (35) stetches into San Antonio, which will control the selection of its congressman. 

The second news story involved redistricting, not gerrymandering in California. According to an article in USA Today, California is redistricted by independent citizens instead of politicians, and because of this process, David Dreier, a 16-term congressman and chairman of the Rules Committee, “was basically left without a district when California’s independent redistricting commission redrew the state’s congressional boundaries.”

How can it be that a congressman is left without a district?  With a little more investigating, I was able to learn from the LA Times that Dreier actually lived in a congressional district, but unlike Texas Republicans, he wasn’t allowed to map his district to include the people he wanted in his district.  According to the Times, his new district contains a majority of Hispanics and in the previous election the district’s voters went for Obama.  Rather than face those voters, Dreier decided to retire.  Perhaps related to his decision was the fact that the 59-years old bachelor who was rumored to be gay had been passed over for a senior leadership position in the Republican Party.

Gerrymandering is indefensible, but the problem is that candidates are not forced to defend it.  If I were running in a primary or general election, I would attempt to get my opponent to take a position.  If my opponent agreed, then that would be progress.  If my opponent disagreed, then this could become a successful election issue with the voters (if I could get the word out.)  A huge majority of voters hate gerrymandering and would not think kindly of any candidate who defended it.






December 19, 2011

Pimentel plays the race card

Filed under: Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:04 pm
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The San Antonio Express-News and its columnist O. Ricardo Pimentel opined recently that “Jim Crow lives in the state’s redistricting map.”  According to Pimentel, who recently immigrated to San Antonio from Wisconsin:

  • Jim Crow lives in these maps. He’s pretending that if he says his maps are intended to favor Republicans, not target Latinos who just happen to vote Democrat, this isn’t racist.  Mr. Crow is a bit more sophisticated these days. Gone are the poll taxes and the white primary, Texas’ historic tools. Now, redistricting and, yes, voter ID, serve the cause.  The point is: Don’t relinquish power. If there are rules or shifting demography that require it, change the rules and ignore the shifts. Find a friendly court. Texas is banking that the U.S. Supreme Court is it.  But one of Section 5’s functions is to block redistricting shenanigans.”
  • Section 5 says that states with histories of thwarting Latinos, blacks and others at the ballot box should have their new maps pre-cleared, usually by the Justice Department. This to determine if the maps are drawn with the intent to discriminate or otherwise make matters worse for minorities.”

As I noted in an earlier blog posting, “redistricting shenanigans” or gerrymandering has been around since the early 1800s, and Texas Democrats have practiced the art as effectively as anyone.   Although I can’t think of anything good to say about the practice, it is generally legal, except when it has an effect that violates Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.     

I initially thought Pimentel’s description of Section 5 – that it requires pre-clearance of redistricting maps “to determine if the maps are drawn with the intent to discriminate or otherwise make matters worse for minorities” – was too simplistic, but I have learned from further reading that his description is essentially accurate – i.e., gerrymandering is illegal if it has a discriminatory effect or a retrogressive purpose on minorities.    

Thus, Republicans are much more ham-strung when it comes to gerrymandering than are Democrats.  Republicans can gerrymander to their heart’s content, but only if it doesn’t adversely affect minorities, who happen to be the base of the Democratic Party.  That doesn’t seem fair, and I can’t imagine why the Republican Party in 2006 under George W. Bush voted in favor of a 25-year extension of Section 5.  What were they thinking?

Fortunately, the Supreme Court in 1995 (Miller v. Johnson) held that Section 5 does not mandate gerrymandering in favor of minorities (the U.S. Justice Dept. had pressured Georgia to redistrict for so-called black-district maximization), and that makes me wonder whether a white plaintiff could challenge the new congressional district #35 that stretches from San Antonio to Austin.  

Regarding the title of this posting – “Pimentel plays the race card” – my point is that I believe Republicans are trying to discriminate against Democrats, not minorities, and that’s why I don’t think Pimentel should have played the race card.  But he has a track record of trying to inflame, not inform.

June 7, 2011

Gerrymandering in the 23rd Congressional District

As I previously blogged, the Republicans in Austin have gerrymandered the 23rd congressional District such that, whereas a majority of the district voters in 2008 voted for President Obama, a majority of the voters in the reconfigured district voted for John McCain in 2008.  That suggests that the district’s Republican congressman, Quico Canseco, will be able to hold on to his seat in 2012 if he can hold on to all of the John McCain voters.  That shouldn’t be difficult because, in hindsight, McCain was not a strong candidate, while Obama was.

You might recall that in my campaign, I complained that Quico was running for Congress in the 23rd District even though he lived in the 21st District of Lamar Smith.  More significantly, Quico had lived most of his life in another district in Laredo.  He was a classic carpetbagger.

Well, as a typical political insider, Quico has taken maximum advantage of gerrymandering.  According to a map of the most recent redistricting, Quico has not only annexed additional conservative McCain voters, but also annexed the gated development that he lives in.  District 23 now contains a narrow strip of territory – the Canseco corridor – that drops from Loop 1604 for a mile or so down Vance Jackson Road until it reaches the Canseco abode near Wurzbach.  It is a classic corridor to nowhere.

I think gerrymandering is an ugly American tradition to achieve partisan political advantage.  I think gerrymandering a narrow corridor in your district so that your house can be included is an example of narcissism that people see too often in politicians.  A recent poll of Texans revealed their opposition to political gerrymandering, but it is not a big enough issue to force politicians to do the right thing.

To make matters worse for me personally, the boundary for District 23 bulges away from me on three sides so that I now find myself in Charlie Gonzalez’s 20th District, one of the most liberal in the state.

I can only hope that the courts revise the boundary, but the court’s focus will not be on cynical, stupid aspects of the boundaries, but rather on violations of the Voting Rights Act.

If you want to know what congressional district you will be in, go to the Texas Legislative Council website, select Plan C141, and then click the “find” tab and enter your address.



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.

February 12, 2011

Redistricting in Texas – the first lawsuit

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 8:47 pm
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Based on the 2010 census, Texas and every other state with more than one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives are required to redistrict to comply with the “one person, one vote” requirement found (read-into) in the U.S. Constitution.  In most states, redistricting means gerrymandering – i.e., the party in control redistricts in such a way as to maximize the number of districts that it can win.  Usually this is done by crowding as many of the opponent’s voters as possible (90%+) into a few districts and spreading a working majority of your voters (55%+) in the other districts.  The Texas legislature will be allowed to be especially creative because its population growth have resulted in the state being awarded four additional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Because the Texas Democrats were so weakened by the latest election, they will not have any political strength to oppose Republican gerrymandering, but they will have legal strength through the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority districts.  Thus, pundits expect any Republican redistricting plan will be challenged in the courts based on the Voting Rights Act. 

But conservatives did not wait to be sued under the Voting Rights Act.  Even before redistricting has been seriously debated, conservatives have sued the state to prohibit any redistricting that considers residents who are not in the U.S. legally.  An article in the Texas Tribune describes the lawsuit.

You may recall that I have previously blogged about this major flaw in apportioning districts – i.e., it fails to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens.   Thus, one congressional district with 800,000 residents may have only 500,000 citizens, while another district with 800,000 residents may have 790,000 citizens.  There is a strong argument that that violates the principle of “one person, one vote.”

This is going to be an interesting issue to follow.

November 28, 2010

Gerrymandering in Texas

Every ten years, the federal government spends billions of dollars conducting a census.  This activity is not caused by idle curiosity; it is a constitutional mandate.  According to the 14th Amendment, congressional seats must be apportioned every ten years “among the states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed.”  This amendment was required because the original language in Article I of the U.S. Constitution provided for “adding to the whole Number of free Persons… and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” 

How do illegal immigrants factor into the decennial census?  Historically, they have been counted, and because of this counting, states that serve as magnets for illegal immigrants – like New York, Florida, California, and Texas – have been awarded more than their fair share of congressional seats.  Congress has the power to modify this practice, and many conservatives have this modification on their “to do” list.

But the act of counting of illegal immigrants is a side show compared to the nationwide redistricting that follows every census.  In about ten states, redistricting is performed dispassionately by a nonpartisan or bipartisan group, but in most states it is passionately conducted by the state legislature.  Unfortunately, Texas is one of those states where the legislature jealously guards its privilege to create districts that serve their political interests.  In such states, redistricting becomes gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is almost as old as the United States.  It started in Massachusetts in 1812 (Governor Gerry shaped a district to look like a salamander), and it has continued unabated to this day.  It is one of those practices that all good-government types can agree to hate – things like vote-trading, omnibus bills, deficit spending, and straight-party voting – but can never eradicate. 

How effective is gerrymandering?  Highly effective.  For example, because Texas congressional districts were gerrymandered to favor the Democrats, the 2002 congressional elections resulted in 17 Democratic wins and 15 Republican wins, even though Republican candidates received 59% of the total votes and Democratic candidates received only 40%.  Then the Republicans (at the behest of Tom Delay) gerrymandered the districts in 2003, and the next election resulted in 21 Republican wins and 11 Democratic wins, although the Republican candidates received 58% of the total votes against 41% for the Democratic candidates.  (Personally, the 2004 results don’t seem significantly gerrymandered in favor of the Republicans.  A presidential candidate who wins the popular vote 58%-41% would be expected to win at least two-thirds of the states or congressional districts.)

Just a few weeks ago at the fitness center, I bumped into a good-government type who started talking politics and redistricting.  Surprise – he had a simple solution, which was to program a computer to design the Texas districts to minimize the length of the district boundaries.  (He liked his idea so much that he resisted my suggestion that the computer would also have to be programmed to comply with the Voting Rights Act requirements vis-à-vis minority-majority districts.  In 2006, the VRA was extended was 25 years, so it is not going away anytime soon.) 

I like my friend’s objective of minimized boundaries, and this conforms to the legal term “compactness.”  Unfortunately, Texas law, unlike the law in many other states, does not require or even suggest compactness as a desirable result in redistricting.  Furthermore, any map of congressional-district boundaries in Texas shows that compactness was not even an afterthought.  The only time that compactness is relevant is when the federal government reviews minority-majority districts.

The Texas Republican gerrymandering in 2003 that was designed to reverse the Texas Democratic gerrymandering of 1990 was reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 – League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry.  Although the Court held that the redistricting of Congressional District 23 violated the Voting Rights Act, it also held that a state can redistrict as often as it wants (presumably anytime a political party retakes control of the state legislature).  Unfortunately, it deferred deciding whether partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional. 

Although I hate gerrymandering, I would prefer that politicians resolve these matters instead of turning them over to judges to decide whether the practice violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  One of San Antonio’s politicians is attempting to do this, as reflected in the following SA Express-News article.  I wish him success.   


May 23, 2010

The 21st century’s Most Valuable Country

Earlier this year, NYT columnist Tom Friedman suggested that America might be able to win back-to-back CMVC titles (Century’s Most Valuable Country).  This prediction surprised a lot of pundits who believe America is on the wane and will inevitably be surpassed by countries with more robust economies, such as China or India.  Friedman supported his prediction by pointing out that America continues to be the world’s leading incubator for creativity, whereas its only major weakness is an ineffective government. 

Friedman defined good governance as the ability of political leaders to take a long-term view of challenges and then to develop optimal governmental action to timely deal with those challenges.  America’s problem is that, although it clearly knows what its challenges are, it can’t find the political will to act.  Examples of domestic challenges that have been neglected and allowed to fester include the following: 

  • Immigration.  Most Democrats want a Path to Citizenship, but no expanded Work Visas, whereas most Republicans want expanded Work Visas, but no Path to Citizenship. 
  • Energy independence.  Most Democrats want to achieve balance by reducing energy usage, whereas most Republicans want to achieve balance by increasing all forms of energy production.
  • Social security.  Most Democrats want to achieve soundness by raising taxes, whereas most Republicans want to achieve soundness by changing to private accounts.
  • National debt/deficit.  Most Democrats want to balance the budget by raising taxes on the rich, whereas most Republicans want to balance the budget by cutting spending and lowering taxes.
  • Global warming.  Most Democrats support cap-n-trade, whereas most Republicans deny there is global warming.

Until recently healthcare reform was on this list of neglected challenges, but the Democrats decided to impose ObamaCare on the country despite the complete opposition of Republicans.  And education reform is the one issue on which the parties seem to agree – both parties favor testing, choice, and teacher/school accountability.

Some pundits have argued that politicians have become too polarized because most election districts have been gerrymandered to be either solidly Democrat or solidly Republican, and thus the person elected is not likely to be moderate or pragmatic.  I agree that de-politicizing the re-districting process would lead to more swing districts, which would lead to more moderate, pragmatic politicians, which would lead to better governance.

A better technique to improve the performance of government is to give the voters an opportunity to punish poor performance.  I’m not talking about voting out the individuals who perform poorly.  That is too difficult for voters to identify.  And I’m not talking about voting out the entire Congress.  That would shock the system too much  I suggest giving voters the opportunity every two years to decide whether the entire Congress should get a 10% pay raise, a 10% pay cut, or no change.  I think this technique, especially after one or two pay cuts, would do wonders in focusing Congressmen on getting things done instead of partisan showboating.

As Ben Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must hang together, gentlemen… else we shall most assuredly hang separately.”  Our Congress needs that type of teamwork if we want America to be the 21st century’s Most Valuable Country.