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Gerrymandered? Texas' inability to redistrict is call for new, better process

By Longview News-Journal
Nov. 12, 2011 at 11 p.m.

We were afraid Texas would wind up here, with new boundaries for its U.S. and state House districts being drawn by a judge. The reason it's happening: Our GOP-dominated Legislature got greedy.

As a result, legislative and congressional races are in turmoil after a federal court this past week threw out the state's Republican-drawn redistricting maps.

If you haven't been following this story line, here's a recap:

Texas, with 32 congressional districts, is getting four more because of population increases in the last Census. That meant the Legislature had the chore of redrawing district lines to add the new districts. The lines the Republican majority settled on aimed primarily to fortify GOP ranks in Congress and in Austin.

But Texas remains one of the states that, because of its history of discriminatory practices, must have changes in its elections procedures pre-cleared by a federal court or the U.S. Justice Department. And the feds found the new state and federal House districts violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to maintain the ability of minority candidates to get elected. Most of the state's growth in the past decade was among Hispanics, but the House districts didn't reflect that reality.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel found the state "used an improper standard of methodology to determine which districts afford minority voters the ability to elect their preferred candidates of choice."

The action puts in motion plans for a full trial on the matter. But because of the time that will take, a federal court in San Antonio will have to draw interim maps of voting districts for use in the 2012 elections.

This has a local impact, because it means candidates don't know where, exactly, they will be running.

Voters may not know who their candidates are. And because of the delays, the deadline for candidate filing has been pushed back to Nov. 28.

Beyond the delays and uncertainty over 2012 elections, it is likely the court's temporary districts will look different from those seen after the trial.

Unfortunately, such hijinx are nothing new.

Fights over alleged gerrymandering resulted in federal courts drawing parts of redistricting plans in 1980, 1990 and 2000. Some court battles lasted for years and resulted in multiple revisions. This happens because the system falls prey to lawmakers more interested in protecting themselves and their parties than drawing districts that make sense.

Texans deserve better, and should demand a smoother, fairer process for redistricting.

One idea that deserves consideration is creation of a body to take lawmakers out of the redistricting process. In this summer's special session, the state Senate passed a bill by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican, to establish a bipartisan redistricting commission. The measure went nowhere in the Texas House.

The proposal was to create a nine-member Texas Congressional Redistricting Commission. Each party caucus in the House and Senate would appoint two members, and they would choose a nonvoting ninth member to chair the body. Rural representation was assured, and appointees couldn't be elected officials, lobbyists or party officers besides precinct committee members. Commission members also couldn't run for office or take part in or give to federal or state campaigns during their two-year terms.

We can't say if the idea - versions of which have been adopted in other states - is the best solution. But we are certain our current process is not working and should be replaced.



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