Shapes of Things to Come Democracy meets demography in the redistricting battle BY LISBETH LIPARI THE PRACTICE OF gerrymandering drawing political boundaries to favor certain political interests traces its dishonorable provenance to the earliest days of this country. The word is derived from the name of Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was trying to use cartography to give him what democracy would not: a safe return to office. In contemporary times gerrymandering has, on occasion, been used for something far more insidious than mere partisan bickering; namely, as a mask for racism. According to the plaintiffs in a Texas lawsuit scheduled for trial on October 1, the Legislature’s new redistricting plan is such an instance of racially-motivated gerrymandering. The lawsuit against Gov. Ann Richards and the state claims that because the Legislature’s new redistricting plan dilutes minority most notably Hispanic voting strength in several Texas House and Senate districts, it violates both the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and attorney Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project, the case is the first in the country to use a state ERA to redress voter discrimination. The suit, known as Mena vs. Richards, also challenges the plan based on the Legislature’s use of admittedly inaccurate census data. The Census Bureau reports that Texas was undercounted by roughly 600,000 people. Further, while the Bureau estimates that nationally, the average undercount was 2.1 percent, blacks were undercounted a by 4.8 percent and Hispanics by a staggering 5.2 percent. Some statisticians, such as plaintiffs’ expert witness George Korbel of Texas Rural Legal Aid, estimate that the minority undercount was even higher in some parts of Texas, possibly up to 7 or 8 percent. Other Challenges Although the plaintiffs won a temporary injunction preventing the Legislture from implementing its redistricting plan,from 332nd District Court Judge Mario E. Ramirez Jr. on August 22, a final ruling isn’t expected until after the trial on October 1. In the meantime, the plan is facing scrutiny by the U.S Department of Justice \(which evaluates all state redistricting plans to ensure they meet the provilenges mounted by Republicans \(former GOP Chairman Ernest contend the plan will result in an unfair under-representation of Republicans. By what logic Republicans can be considered a protected class, however, is an open question. Challenges to redistricting plans are easily as old as gerrymandering itself. After the 1980 census, for instance, litigation tied up redistricing plans a full three years. And as Ron Dusek, from the Texas Attorney General’s office puts it, “There will always be court challenges. Somebody somewhere is not going to like the plan.” Should the 1990 plan fail in any of the four challenges, it will wind up either back on the House floor, or go before the state’s redistricting board, comprised of the attorney general, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, land commissioner and comptroller. Also in the background are two long-shot efforts by the attorney general’s office to obtain updated census figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce, of which the Census Bureau is a part. Should the state win either of these two uphill battles, the Legislature will be ordered back to the proverbial drawing board with new statistics Rep. Tom Uher VIC HINTERLANG in hand. However, the U.S. Supreme Court recently stayed a decision by a California court that had issued an order based on the Freedom of Information Act to release the California Census data. Cracking, Packing & Incumbent Protection Like all highly specialized subjects, gerrymandering has its own terms of “art.” The three most pertinent are packing, or drawing district boundaries so minorities are “packed together,” thereby reducing the impact of minority votes; cracking, or splitting a heavily concentrated minority population into two or more districts, again reducing the impact of minority votes; and incumbent protection, or drawing boundaries so that the re-election of incumbents is not threatened by a new, presumably minority or minoritysupported candidate. Although gerrymandering in and of itself is not necessarily illegal, gerrymandering to dilute minority votes is. While partisan protectionism is the typical justification for gerrymandered districts \(in this comes to minorities, the argument breaks down. As with most states in the country, minority Texans tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat. “The problem with packing is that you have districts too heavily concentrated with high percentages of Hispanics and it doesn’t allow you to share that population with another district that could benefit and might allow you to get two Hispanic seats,” said Dr. Robert Brischetto, a plaintiffs’ expert witness and executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute. As an example, Brischetto cited seven House districts 35, 43, 75, 77, 115, 116, and 118 each of THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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