There’s a smile on the face of Tom DeLay this morning and much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the left as the Supreme Court ruled that most of the DeLay-inspired gerrymander of Texas congressional districts is constitutional:
The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld most of the Republican-boosting Texas congressional map engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay but threw out part, saying some of the new boundaries failed to protect minority voting rights.
The fractured decision was a small victory for Democratic and minority groups who accused Republicans of an unconstitutional power grab in drawing boundaries that booted four Democratic incumbents from office.
Indeed, DeLay’s handiwork was a piece of political art. As I mentioned in this post, it brought to mind a similar piece of legerdemain by California Democratic Congressman Phil Burton back in the redistricting scrums of 1980:
The result of Burtonâ€™s machinations became clear in 1982. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, there were 22 Democratic and 21 Republican Congressmen. In 1982, following Burtonâ€™s manipulation of the system, there were 28 Democrats and 17 Republicans in Congress. In 1984, Republicans won a majority of votes in Congressional districts but failed to gain a single seat thanks to Burtonâ€™s gerrymandering.
The map drawn up by Burton looked like he had given a monkey a crayon and allowed him to scribble on a map of the state. Burtonâ€™s own district featured so many twists and turns that the lines actually ended up splitting apartment buildings in two. There were lines drawn down the middle of streets so that one side was in Burtonâ€™s district and the other side given over to the Republicans. All of this legerdemain was necessitated by the changing nature of Burtonâ€™s district which had become gentrified and thus full of Republican voters. But it was made possible â€“ like DeLayâ€™s efforts in Texas â€“ by the magic of computers and the science of demography.
To answer the argument that it’s perfectly alright to game the system in order to maximize one party or another’s political representation I would agree. This is exactly what DeLay was doing with his map by removing reliable Democratic voting blocs made up of blacks and Hispanics from Republican enclaves. The Supremes ruled that DeLay went too far but that his basic idea is perfectly legal and constitutional.
As a practical matter, this will mean jiggling a few district lines in order to more fully reflect minority concentrations of voters so that a candidate can potentially be elected based solely and exclusively on their ethnic background or race. Why this isn’t considered demeaning by minorities has always escaped me, especially since black and Hispanic representation would soar in Congress if, instead of concentrating a clear majority in one or two districts, minority candidates were recruited to run in races where there was a strong plurality of black or Hispanic voters. I think that the idea that whites won’t support a black or Hispanic candidate is almost dead. This won’t change the voting rights law or any SCOTUS decisions impacting redistricting. But it should be a reality taken into account by both parties so that more minority candidates can be elected.
Also of note is a part of the decision that may have huge ramifications down the road: The Court ruled that states may redraw district boundaries any time they wish rather than waiting for the Census report that comes out once a decade.
On a different matter, the court ruled 7-2 that state legislators may draw new maps as often as they like _ not just once a decade as Texas Democrats claimed. That means Democratic and Republican state lawmakers can push through new maps anytime there is a power shift at a state capital.
The Constitution says states must adjust their congressional district lines every 10 years to account for population shifts. In Texas the boundaries were redrawn twice after the 2000 census, first by a court, then by state lawmakers in a second round promoted by DeLay after Republicans took control.
That was acceptable, the justices said.
“We reject the statewide challenge to Texas redistricting as an unconstitutional political gerrymander,” Kennedy wrote.
This could be very troubling for our democracy. As it stands now, most people do not know who their Congressman is. What would happen if people were shuttled all over the map every couple of years as one party or another took control of the statehouse? I am willing to bet that number would decline even further.
Beyond that, this aspect of the decision presents some interesting possibilities. It would make getting and keeping a Congressional majority on not just winning national elections, but also predicated on doing well at the state level. Will this give more power to national political parties who have the money and resources to push for statehouse majorities in order to maximize their clout in Congress?
The declining power of political parties over the last quarter century has been well documented. It will be interesting to see if this stops that slide and indeed, turns it around somewhat. More powerful parties means more party discipline, something both parties could do with a little more of.
And what really must be killing the lefties today is that DeLay is getting the last laugh – at least until his trial. Regardless of how his legal troubles fall out, DeLay’s legacy to Republicans in Texas seems secure.
I guess I forgot to mention that this puts a monumental crimp in the Democrat’s plans to take over the House in November. Since most observers believe that even with the court ordered re-drawing of districts it is unlikely that the Republicans will lose any seats in Texas, the mountain that the Democrats must climb to take control of Congress just got that much steeper.
And given some curious poll numbers in key states that have come out recently, the much ballyhood momentum the Democrats were touting just a few short weeks ago, may be slowing to a crawl. The GOP is not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. But they may have stopped the bleeding and even begun to reverse some very troubling trends.