Many people watching partisan gridlock in Congress lament that the body has become so polarized that the political middle has all but disappeared.
These days, to successfully reach across the political aisle requires very long arms. Evidence of bipartisanship is rare, and middle ground is hard to find.
In legislative elections, most seats are won in the primary, rather than general, elections. The result of that development is that most legislators – Republican and Democrat – worry about being “primaried” – Republicans challenged from the right, and Democrats from the left.
Much, if not most, of the cause is partisan political gerrymandering during redistricting.
In states where one party controls both legislative and executive branches, redistricting after the federal census every 10 years can allow the party in control to bake in political advantage that could last for decades.
As he was leaving office, former President Barack Obama said a major post-presidential priority would be trying to halt the partisan political redistricting that has polarized Congress and many state legislatures.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made rulings over the years that some redistricting moves by legislatures have been too extreme. They usually involve racial or ethnic discrimination.
But the court has never ruled that redistricting for partisan advantage, by itself, is a no-no. The court has tried to avoid having to navigate the swamp of politics.
However, the case the court is hearing this week deals with exactly that: whether redrawing districts to give one party maximum representation, while punishing the other party with minimum representation, is unconstitutional.
The case – Gill v. Whitford – comes from Wisconsin, where the Republicans took advantage of the political backlash in the 2010 election fueled by President Obama’s health care bill.
The Wisconsin Republicans won control of both the legislative and executive branches for the first time in four decades.
They took advantage of it. In 2011 redistricting, the Republicans drew districts such that in the 2012 election, though they got just 48 percent of the vote statewide for legislative seats, they won 60 of the 99 seats – just over 60 percent.
A 2-1 decision by a lower court favored the Democrats’ argument that because of the slanted redistricting, they suffer from an “efficiency gap.”
That means that through two tactics – “packing,” in which some districts are crammed with far more Democrats than necessary to win, and “cracking,” in which a Democratic district has just enough voters put in another district that the Democrats can’t win – combine to waste Democratic votes.
If the high court takes up the Wisconsin case and rules for the Democrats, it should definitely impact Texas.
In 2001 redistricting fell to the five-member Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB) to redraw legislative districts, after legislators failed to do so.
For the first time, following Republican gains that led to a clean sweep in 1998 of statewide offices, the LRB had four Republican members, and just one Democrat – House Speaker Pete Laney.
Three of the Republican members – then-Atty. Gen. John Cornyn; then-Land Commissioner David Dewhurst; and then-Comptroller Carole Keeton – voted for the Republican-slanted districts.
Acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, though a Republican, voted with Laney for more balanced legislative redistricting.
As a result of the redrawn House districts, in the 2002 elections, Republicans captured 84 of the 150 districts, to 66 for the Democrats. It was the first time the House was under Republican control, since Reconstruction ended more than a century earlier.
So in 2003, the newly GOP-controlled legislature, under new Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick, “re-redistricted” congressional districts – which had just been redrawn in 2001. Democrats called foul, but were unable to achieve change in court or elsewhere.
So Republicans gained a half-dozen new congressmen from Texas, by jerking districts out from under some senior Democrats – part of a partisan plot devised by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, to increase his party’s cushion in Congress.
Two Texas congressional districts this year were declared unconstitutionally discriminatory against minorities by a three-judge federal court in San Antonio.
The districts are examples of “packing” and “cracking.” The lower court ruling has been put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, while it decides how to deal with the case.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Austin whose current narrow district stretches from Austin to San Antonio, currently represents District 35 – which the court ruled had far more minority voters crammed in it than necessary for a Democrat to win.
And U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican from Corpus Christi, represents District 27. It split up some Hispanic areas of South Texas, and replaced them with more non-Hispanic areas, stretching to Bastrop County near Austin.
So, stay tuned. This saga continues.
– Contact McNeely at firstname.lastname@example.org.