The following editorial published in the Austin American-Statesman on June 28:
Nearly 250 years after our country was founded, America still grapples with seemingly straightforward questions: Who counts? And do our voices count equally?
The U.S Supreme Court, mirroring the deep divisions within the nation, delivered mixed answers last week.
It blocked, at least for now, the Trump administration’s cynical effort to add a citizenship question to the census. By all accounts, such a question would chill Hispanic participation in the census, not just among immigrants but among citizens who fear the information they provide could be used against a family member who’s undocumented, even though the federal government says it doesn’t share census data with law enforcement or anyone else. One study suggested the citizenship question could lead to an undercount of 1.1 million Texans, which would mean the loss of a congressional seat and $378 million annually in Medicaid funds, as well as other vital funding.
Distressingly, though, the high court abdicated its responsibility to address political gerrymandering. Ruling it’s not the federal judiciary’s place to referee disputes over whether a congressional district was drawn to favor one party over another, the court all but invited state lawmakers to game the political maps all they want. Who’s going to stop them?
We hope, next year, voters will.
The state lawmakers that Texans pick in 2020 will be every bit as consequential, if not as high-profile, as the person voters send to the White House. After the 2020 census, state lawmakers will draw Texas’ legislative and congressional districts for the coming decade. They will decide whether Austin remains shamelessly split between a half-dozen congressional districts – we’re the largest U.S. city without a congressional district that’s largely based in the city – or whether Texas communities will be kept intact so they can elect representatives who reflect their interests.
Texas has a terrible track record on this, with several studies ranking it among the most gerrymandered states in the country. You can thank Texas Republicans for the current maps, which splinter the Democratic stronghold of Austin into five reliably Republican congressional districts and only one Democratic one. Still, when they controlled the levers of state politics decades ago, Democrats drew similarly lopsided maps. It’s the same story across the country: The cases sparking the Supreme Court’s ruling last week involved North Carolina districts that favored Republicans and a Maryland district drawn to help Democrats.
Both parties’ hands are dirty here.
The solution is to get lawmakers out of the business of drawing their own districts, as more than a dozen other states have done. Most of those states have redistricting commissions with an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees, plus a couple of independent members unanimously selected by the partisan ones. Such a mix, often in combination with state laws requiring districts to be drawn fairly, is more likely to produce truly representative districts.
We’re not holding our breath for that to happen in Texas, though. The Legislature would have to decide to hand over its mapmaking powers, and GOP leaders have no intention of loosening their grip. To the contrary, as the Texas Tribune and the Dallas Morning News reported, lawmakers quietly passed a bill this session largely shielding their own documents and communications from public view. Come 2021, that law will make it even harder for the public to see the political calculations driving the new district lines.
Texans’ only recourse is the ballot box: Voters next year should consider how legislative candidates want to handle redistricting and whether they support handing the task over to an independent commission.
That question is equally critical for candidates running for Congress. House Democrats this spring passed H.R. 1, a sweeping election reform bill that included prohibitions on gerrymandering and a requirement for every state to use independent redistricting commissions. But the bill was dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate. Voters who support these badly needed reforms should back House, Senate and presidential candidates who do, too.
Gerrymandering isn’t simply a problem for voters whose party isn’t in power. The practice leads to more districts that lean heavily toward one party or another. Such districts tend to elect more sharply partisan representatives who are less likely to seek moderate solutions or compromise with members of the opposite party. The more lawmakers’ actions stray from the will of the people, the more the public loses faith in government.
We hoped last week the Supreme Court would put the brakes on this anti-democratic practice. But the divided court, recognizing a problem exists, nonetheless chose to sit this one out. The task falls to voters to demand better from their lawmakers – or demand better lawmakers.