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FEATURE The Redistricting Thicket Do Texas Dems Have a Prayer with the Supremes? BY DAVE DENISON 11.111 he great Texas redistricting battle of 2003 is Supreme Court. From my Massachusetts perch, it’s hard to see how Texas Democrats win this one. I am writing in the week before the March 1 oral arguments and thus without knowledge of whether Justice Clarence Thomas asked thoughtful, penetrating questions and whether Justices Scalia, Roberts, and Alito betrayed deep skepticism of Republican motives. But I’ve just read the briefs from both sides. Stipulating ab initio that I am not a legal expert or even a good prognosticator, I’d say it is pretty clear the Dems are screwed, or as we say up here in the American Athens, scrod. But it was a good fight! It truly was. Worth those trips to Oklahoma and New Mexico, and the national headlines. And Texas Dems rearing up, not rolling over for Tom DeLay. Plus, now there’s a consolation prize, as DeLay has to sweat it out in the courtrooms and in Congressional District 22. So, no regrets. There’s just too damn many Republicans in Texas these days. Whaddaya gonna do. Also on the plus side: Those national headlines directed attention to the evils of partisan gerrymandering and set off brushfires of reform. Well, more like grassfires. Okay, kind of like hot flashes. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked California voters to take redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers and entrust it to a panel of retired judges last year, this looked like an issue that could take off. But last fall, California voters said no. Same result in Ohio. Well. Redistricting reform is something to think about, anyway. So let’s think about it. What is the nature of the problem and what might fix it? To begin with, it seems fishy to have politicians conspiring to draw the lines that will make or break their own careers. Redistricting, it’s often said, functions as an incumbent-protection racket. And surely it’s no stretch to imagine a dominant party using its power to hopelessly stack the odds against a minority party. Arizona voters didn’t like the smell of it and set up a new independent redistricting commission in 2000. Why wouldn’t that be the obvious solution everywhere? Politics intrudes: It seems like a good idea to make redistricting a “non-partisan” process when you’re in the minority party. Gov . Schwarzenegger talked a good-government line, but his real objective, voters may have suspected, was to improve Republican electoral opportunities. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush cheered Arnold’s crusade from afar: Break that stranglehold the California Dems have in Sacramento. You go. Now Common Cause is pushing a non-partisan commission in Florida, where Republicans control both houses of the legislature, and Gov. Bush is not at all inclined to be, shall we say, a reformer with results. He likes the current results. Florida, as we are so painfully aware, has about as many Democratic voters as Republicans. Yet the Congressional delegation now stands at 18 Republicans and seven Democrats. We have a racket like that going in Massachusetts. About a third of the electorate here is reliably Republican \(official GOP registration is only 13 percent because most are too more than a third is rock-ribbed Democrat. The other third swings both ways, tending to vote for Democratic presidential candidates and Republican governors. In 2004, George W. Bush, worst president ever, got 37 percent of the vote here against native son John Kerry. So, in fairness, you might think a third of our Congressional delegation would be Republicans. Not so. It’s an all-D team, 10 out of 10. This is not unrelated to the fact that 85 percent of the 200 seats in the Massachusetts legislature are warmed by Democratic duffs. Common Cause activists, good-government idealists that they are, fanned out across the state last fall to gather signatures for a “Fair Districts” campaign. The idea was to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2008, creating an independent redistricting commission. But the effort fell a few thousand signatures short and the question will not make it to would vote for it anyway. Why should Massachusetts send more Republicans to Washington when Florida sends at least five too many because of GOP gerrymandering? There’s a war on for control of Congress, man! Let Florida clean up its own act, then we’ll talk. As long as we’ve had legislatures, mapmaking has been used for political advantage. For most of our history the rule was “anything goes.” In a 1946 case before the Supreme Court, Illinois was challenged on the grounds its legislature had not readjusted district lines since 1901. The unbalanced districts, it was argued, violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. In effect, keeping old lines in place allowed rural districts to control the legislature and deprived faster-growing urban areas of equal voting power. But the court declined to act. As Justice Felix Frankfurter famously warned, “Courts ought not to enter this political thicket.” That advice held until the landmark “apportionment cases” 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 10, 2006