Change needed in the way Texas redraws districts
Published January 7th 2004 in Austin American-Statesman
The decision Tuesday by a special panel of three federal judges that the new Texas congressional redistricting plan complies with federal law and the Constitution probably ends this long political war. At least several of the Democratic plaintiffs will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but getting the high court to take a case is usually quite difficult.

This kind of fight over congressional redistricting, which included three special sessions of the Legislature and the spectacle of Democratic lawmakers fleeing first to Oklahoma and then to New Mexico, should not happen again. On that point the federal panel appeared to agree, even as it rejected claims that the new map discriminated against minority voters.

Though the federal panel decided that what the Republican legislative majority did with congressional redistricting was legal, it questioned its rightness. The judges took note of how the arrival of computers has made it far easier for legislators to redraw congressional lines to partisan advantage and, in doing so, to protect themselves from punishment by the voters.

"We know it is rough and tumble politics, and we are ever mindful that the judiciary must call the fouls without participating in the game," the federal court said. "We must nonetheless express concern that in the age of technology this is a very different game."

The court also said, "Congress can assist by banning mid-decade redistricting, which it has the clear constitutional authority to do, as many states have done."

The point is well-taken, and Congress -- and the Texas Legislature -- should consider it.

The state also should enact a change in the way we redistrict, not just when we redistrict. We have supported a change in how redistricting is carried out before, and one Republican state senator, Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, has introduced such legislation repeatedly, unfortunately without result.

According to a National Conference of State Legislatures survey, 12 states have assigned redistricting -- not just congressional, but legislative as well -- to some panel other than their legislatures.

Perhaps the most intriguing is Iowa, where much of the grunt work of congressional redistricting is carried out by a nonpartisan staff under the general oversight of a temporary commission appointed by the Legislature's House and Senate party floor leaders.

Iowa law sets the standards for the staff to follow, including a ban on considering the desires of incumbents, challengers or parties; the addresses of incumbents; the political affiliation of registered voters; or prior election results. The resulting map is still subject to legislative approval, but there are limits on how much it can be amended. One result of this approach is that Iowans actually see election contests for their congressional seats.

The Iowa approach cuts against everything Texas redistricting has meant to both parties, both of which start with incumbent protection for the party in control and move on to the ambitions of state legislators in the majority party. Before the next redistricting in 2011, Texas should adopt a procedure that focuses on citizens, not parties.