In 1812 the Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry (pronounced Garry) approved of a State Senate redistricting plan that would clearly favor his own Democratic-Republican Party over the rival Federalists. One State Senate district drawn from that plan was mocked in Massachusetts news papers where they noted the district resembled a salamander, labeling it “The Gerry-Mander” (some how becoming pronounced Jerry) and giving birth the modern term gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the process of drawing electoral districts in a way to give one group greater influence in the election results over another. Elbridge Gerry lost re-election that year and the Federalists saw a large resurgence in the state, but at the end of the day the gerrymander did its job, the Democratic-Republicans held control of the Massachusetts Senate.
Fast forward over 200 years later and the practice of gerrymandering is alive and well. In Texas since 2003 districts have been drawn to heavily favor Republican outcomes (It should be noted that prior to that Democrats had gerrymandered the districts to favor their party). To understand how Texas districts are gerrymandered two terms should be defined, “packing” and “cracking.” Packing refers to drawing a district in a way that places as many people of a race/party inside as is necessary so as to dilute their influence in other surrounding districts. Cracking is the opposite approach, where the lines are drawn to purposefully spread a targeted group out among multiple districts to the point where that group has a majority in as few as possible districts. Given a large enough population, both of these methods can be used together.
Above is Texas’ 35th congressional district, an example of packing. Containing the heart of San Antonio, and stretching along Interstate 35 to include parts of south Austin. Two communities that have very little in common apart from voting Democratic. With a large portion of Democratic voters safely sequestered away in TX-35, the remaining Democrats in the region are then cracked into multiple oddly shaped districts that reliably elect Republicans.
Travis County Texas, home to Austin, contains around 1.2 million people. In the Texas Senate that is enough warrant one state senator representing Austin, and then room for part of another district. Instead is broken among four districts, two meant to pack Democratic voters (one even stretches down to South Texas), and two cracked into Republican districts. At the federal level, Travis county could reasonable expect to be home to two congressional districts, both likely to be heavily Democratic favored. Instead is split among five, including the previously mentioned 35th district which packs Democratic voters, leaving the remaining cracked among four Republican congressmen.
The danger to Republicans in cracking the Democrats is what can become a “dummymander.” When Party A voters are cracked into multiple Party B favored districts, Party B may win more districts, but those districts still contain a number of Party A voters. A gerrymander becomes a dummymander when Party B placed too many Party A voters into their district and over time their advantage disappears and a district drawn to favor Party B becomes a Party A district. As populations shift, demographics change, and voting habits evolve, you cannot expect election results to remain fixed in place over time. A recent example of this could be seen in 2018 where multiple Central Texas Congressional districts were suddenly competitive because of growth of those cracked democratic voters now becoming larger parts of the districts.
Ideally the purpose of electoral districts is the representation of communities. If everything was voted at-large, the voices of the smaller communities would be lost in the larger population. The problem is when the process of drawing these districts becomes weaponized to cement your party’s hold on power. While Texas may currently be dealing with Republican Gerrymanders, the fact of the matter is that both parties have blood on their hands, and shamelessly employ this weapon with the excuse “they will do it to use when they are in power, so we will do it to them!”
So what is the solution? Through the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) and court decisions, some progress has been made in redistricting. The VRA ensures that if a geographic location is large enough to contain a district that is majority-minority, it cannot be broken up. Race legally cannot be a motivation for drawing districts (except for VRA protected districts). While this is progress, it does not address partisan gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up cases on partisan gerrymandering only to essentially just shrug their shoulders as the issue is “political, and thus beyond the scope of the Judicial Branch.”
Reform then is in the hands of the states. Ten states have wisely acknowledged that if neither child can play nicely they both lose the toy, establishing independent redistricting commissions (IRC). These IRC’s remove the responsibility for drawing congressional and state legislative districts from the state legislatures.
In part 2 we shall discuss what redistricting in 2021 will look like for Texas, and the prospects for reform.