by Ross Ramsey
Texas does not have an independent redistricting commission and is probably not going to get one.
But the lawmakers who have been ignoring the idea for years lost one of their excuses: In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court turned back a challenge to Arizona’s commission, saying the voters had the right to take that power away from legislators.
Other states have similar commissions. In some, like Texas, lawmakers draw the maps, and there are hybrids in others.
The Arizona case opens the door for voters to take the map-drawing away from the people who are occupationally dependent on the lines on those maps. That’s a fancy way of saying the lawmakers have a conflict of interest when they draw. They’re picking their voters instead of drawing the lines as if they had no interest at all.
Efforts to change the process in Texas have consistently hit the wall. None of the redistricting commission legislation filed during this year’s legislative session even got a committee hearing — much less a vote from the House or the Senate.
“The intransigence here really seems to be about giving up whatever power the legislative body has to make these decisions,” says state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “They don’t want to give that power up. I don’t care what’s said publicly. Clearly, it’s about what is decided behind closed doors and not about what is decided in any kind of a public arena.”
Legislators, says Howard — who is one — don’t have the same priorities that voters might have. They “clearly look at voting patterns and political persuasion and where incumbents reside and where challengers might reside, and decisions are based on self-serving reasons rather what the intention was — making this representative of communities of interest,” she says.
Creating a commission independent of the state House and Senate might sound better to voters than to legislators, but those voters can’t get a swing at it unless legislators put it on the ballot. The state lottery started that way. It was hard to get the House and Senate to put gambling on the ballot, but everyone had a pretty good idea that if they did, voters would gulp it up.
The circumstances eventually came into place. Creating a lottery was a populist issue in the 1990 governor’s race. State officials came to Austin the next year to face a fiscal crisis and a state full of voters who didn’t want higher taxes. Voila! Suddenly, lawmakers chose gambling, and the Texas Lottery was born.
Maybe voters would like to take redistricting away from lawmakers. But unlike the lottery, political mapmaking is hardly a sexy issue. There is no clamoring mob demanding reform.
The people who are really interested in it are the people who already control it.
Howard is pessimistic. The legislators trying to create a commission this year are all Democrats, which makes the effort seem like little more than a minority party trying to win a foothold. That might not be incorrect. The same thing was true in 2013.
A Republican senator, Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, sponsored such a bill in 2011 that actually escaped a Senate committee and made it to the list of bills eligible for a full Senate vote. But it didn’t have enough supporters to come to a vote and never got a chance in the House.
Wentworth wasn’t trying to put more Democrats in office. Howard, frankly, would like to see more from her own party.
“I would like to think that would be a possibility,” she admits. “Regardless, I think you would have a greater likelihood of broader participation.”
She and others blame redistricting — and the predetermined outcomes it builds into political maps — for low voter participation in Texas.
“People feel like it’s a done deal, and they don’t show up at the polls,” she says. “They leave it to the more extreme members of the political parties. And don’t feel like they have much of a stake in anything because they don’t think they can make a difference.”
The supporters of an independent commission will be back when the Legislature comes back. They always do. And while there is no evidence of a groundswell of support, they have this much: The highest court in the land says it is constitutional to take control of legislative maps away from the legislators whose fates depend on them.