Texas-mandering

Redrawing the boundaries of US congressional districts has usually been done by state legislatures after each decennial Census to reflect any population shifts. But since the founding of the United States, the winds of politics as much as the shifting sands of demography have influenced the creation of new voting districts. So lately a number of Democrats and Republicans have asked why redistricting can't be done at any time, and purely for political reasons.

Texas has become a battleground for this break in tradition. Yet another special session of the state legislature failed this week to produce a quorum of senators needed to pass a GOP measure at redrawing Texas's congressional districts.

Before dismissing this quirky drama of 11 Democratic legislators preventing a vote by escaping to New Mexico as just another wild Texas tale, consider this: The last time Texas had a stalemate over districting (2001), a federal court ended up approving the new voting boundaries. That federal intrusion into a state responsibility was more than a violation of tradition. Indeed, the Constitution clearly notes that state governments must regulate elections in their states (although voting rights are a federal concern).

The current Texas case, ironically, has shown to one and all just how much redistricting has become a way to serve one party's victory over another, and not about placing voters into compact, contiguous geographic districts that preserve a community of interest.

Through their redistricting antics over the years, both Democrats and Republicans have created a new phenomenon in American politics - the safe incumbent. When 390 of 435 seats in the US House are considered safe, that breeds problems in lawmaking. Members from safe districts can feel they're invincible, and then play hardball politics.

One less-than-perfect resolution in Texas could be the current effort to create a redistricting commission that's fairly balanced between Democrats, Republicans, and possibly an independent. One Texas GOP senator has introduced a bill to do that, with sponsors from both parties. Typically, such commissions aren't free from political influences, but if enough fair-minded men and women can be chosen, at least they would let state lawmakers deal with other pressing business, and keep federal judges from intervening.

The US Supreme Court plans to hear a Pennsylvania case in January on the issue of political gerrymandering. Perhaps it will decide states can keep the redistricting responsibility.

But ultimately, it's up to voters to support or reject politicians who use tactics to ensure a party's dominance rather than ensure that districts fairly represent the people.

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