Thursday, November 16, 2006

Redistricting Reform on the Agenda for 2007

The midterm elections were hailed as a "tsunami" for the Democrats, but many pundits have suggested that the win might have been even bigger if not for gerrymandered districts. Nationwide the shift in governors' races and state legislatures bode well for handing Democrats control of the redistricting process in several states. So will the 2006 victories and the potential for more gains after the next census make the Democrats complacent, or are they serious enough about reform to tackle the redistricting debate?

There are reasons other than the issue of competitiveness to oppose partisan redistricting. By eliminating the need to appeal to moderates of the opposite party, gerrymandering contributes to the polarization of political parties, although its role is often overstated. Still, according to Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute:
"The U.S. is an outlier in the democratic world in the extent to which we allow those in office to control their own fates by rigging the rules."
The ruling on the Texas plan earlier this year highlighted the limits of the judicial branch in resolving the redistricting debate. It did not throw the door completely open on mid-decade redistricting. Two factors were key in the decision: 1) the legislature was replacing a map drawn by a federal court and; 2) the courts had preserved a majority Democratic delegation in a majority Republican state. But as the challenge to the Texas redistricting plan proved, courts are reluctant to address the issue of competitiveness. With the courts limited ruling, and without an initiative and referendum process, the best possibility of reform still lies with state constitutional amendments.

In Texas, there are signs that redistricting will be a major issue on the agenda for the 2007 legislature. Bills already introduced to address the abuses of the Tom DeLay era.

State Rep. Allan Ritter, D-Nederland, introduced a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday that would prohibit congressional and legislative redistricting more than once a decade unless the courts order otherwise.

House Joint Resolution 31, to be considered when lawmakers return to Austin in January, is intended to forever forbid a repeat of the maneuver engineered by DeLay in 2003 when he was the Republican leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

A constitutional amendment would have to be approved by the public, but once passed, it could not be overturned at the whim of the legislature. While HJR 31 would prevent a mid-decade redistricting such as the one conducted by Tom DeLay, it still allows a partisan redrawing of the map in the year after a decennial U.S. census. Other legislators are considering taking the redistricting process out of the hands of politicians altogether.
Several efforts have been made over the years to reform the redistricting process. Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, has long advocated turning the process over to a nonpartisan panel and has said he will likely renew that effort during the 2007 session. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, has signaled his intention to join forces with Wentworth.
The real reason such reform hasn't been more popular, of course, is that the party in power is the only one who can push for this kind of legislation, and usually they are the beneficiaries of the gerrymander. Since the Democrats are still a minority party in the Texas state house, it will require the cooperation of a significant number of Republicans to support the non-partisan approach. Don't hold your breath.

Capitol Annex and Off the Kuff have links here and here to help you follow all the action on redistricting (HJR31, HB112 and HJR22) and other bills in the upcoming legislative session.

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