Gerrymandering, Part 2: What’s Happening in Texas—A Closer Look
As we learned in Gerrymandering, Part 1: A Powerful Political Tool, the redrawing the lines of congressional districts, has become a science. The increasing amounts of election data collected from election results, party preferences, and demographics has allowed the Texas Legislature to realign district boundaries and the distribution of voters with pinpoint accuracy. In 2014, based on polls about the 113th Congress, only 15% of voters expressed approval of the job Congress was doing. Despite this low approval rating, Congress had an incumbent reelection rate of 90%. (Houston Chronicle, May 6, 2015). The election results of 2014 and 2016 for the Texas congressional districts bear out this statistic. Of 36 Representatives in office in 2014, voters elected new Representatives in only two districts, and that result was because of two retirements from office. Among the Representatives elected in 2016, 2 were elected with over 90% of the vote; 7 with over 80%; 6 with over 70%; 11 with over 60%; and 9 with over 55%. There was only one competitive race out of 36. The 2016 elections resulted in a Texas delegation of 25 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
How have we arrived at such extreme gerrymandering in Texas? Following the 2002 elections, the Texas Legislature, which was trending Republican during the 90s, attained a Republican majority in both houses. Profiting from the Republican-led Legislature and the Republican governor, Rick Perry, Tom DeLay, then Majority House Whip, in October 2003, took four days leave of Congress and returned to Texas to engineer a new map/plan for Texas congressional districts. This bold, aggressive move, unprecedented during a mid-census year, achieved startling success. The new plan, orchestrated by DeLay, was even more favorable to the Republicans than the one drawn by the Courts only two years previously. In spite of a “preclearance” clause requiring approval of the plan by the Department of Justice, then under the Republican Bush administration, the reworked plans were approved. Practically overnight, metaphorically speaking, the Texas delegation switched from a seventeen to fifteen majority in favor of the Democrats to a twenty-one to eleven majority in favor of the Republicans, a clear-cut case of partisan gerrymandering.
Following the 2010 national census, Texas gained four more congressional seats requiring new district lines and maps. Although the number of seats in the state House (150) and Senate (31) has not changed, they, too, can be redrawn to reflect population growth and demographics. The maps drawn by the 2011 Texas legislature demonstrated how Republicans once again responded to demographic change by limiting the power of an increasingly diverse electorate. (The Nation, June 5, 2013). Between 2000 and 2010 the Texas population grew by 4.3 million; two-thirds were Hispanic and 11% were black. Even so the number of minority seats declined, from eleven to ten. Republicans picked up three of the four new seats. Silicon Valley Data Science, a data analysis company, reported that Texas Republicans gained two of these seats through gerrymandering. Using detailed population, demographic data, and voting preferences, they measured the compactness and “squiggliness” (think of the Salamander cartoon of 1812) of each district. Taken together these criteria paint a picture of gerrymandering. ‘Through a strategy called “packing-and-cracking,” redistricting packs Democratic voters into a few districts and dilutes the rest, giving the Republican Party a comfortable advantage.’ (Houston Chronicle) The Washington Post named District 35, which connects liberal parts of San Antonio and Austin one of the worst in the U.S. and District 33, one of the squiggliest, 98.6% squigglier than any others in the U.S. These strategies work well in states where large metropolitan centers are heavily populated with Democrats and the rural areas with Republicans as is the case in Texas. Since many minority voters are Democrats, one could make the case for “racial” gerrymandering as well as “partisan” gerrymandering.
What can be done to mitigate some of the excesses of gerrymandering to bring back more competitive and representative elections? In Part 3, Gerrymandering: Looking Ahead, there are several areas to keep in mind: the increasing importance of the primary process, ongoing court challenges based on racial discrimination and voter ID laws, Supreme Court cases addressing “partisan” gerrymandering, and practical solutions.
If you have any questions or comments, please contact Martha Ewell by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martha Ewell, Public Policy Chair