AP NEWS

Gerrymandering advantage for candidates, not voters

March 31, 2019

A fundamental element of the American experiment in democracy is that the voters have the right to choose the people who will represent them.

For statewide offices, such as governor or U.S. senator, this is fairly simple because there are no districts. For all other offices — U.S. House of Representatives and all seats in the Texas Senate and House — the state is carved into districts. This process of creating legislative districts has, unfortunately, become distorted so that elected officials choose their voters instead of the voters choosing their elected officials.

This is gerrymandering. This is not fair, and it is not right.

The U.S. Constitution requires a national census every 10 years, which is then used to allocate the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the various states according to population. Once each state knows how many U.S. representatives it will have, the state must divide into congressional districts that are roughly equal in population to protect the constitutional requirement of one person, one-vote.

What could — and should — be a nonpartisan process that creates compact districts with voters in areas of common interest has, instead, been turned into a hyperpartisan and “protect the incumbent” system. This has happened when both Democrats and Republicans have been the majority party in Texas. The result is that congressional districts are packed with such a high percentage of eligible voters from one party or the other that there is no real contest of ideas between the candidates. The outcome is predetermined, and it is unfair to the voters.

The process is even worse for Texas Senate and House districts. Incumbent legislators are, literally, drawing the lines to benefit their own re-election. Talk about a conflict of interest!

When voters from one party or the other believe their votes do not matter in a particular district, they disengage from the political process. This leads to voter apathy and, eventually, a small handful of voters actually decide policy positions that affect the entire population of a district. While it is true that voters have a responsibility to stay involved, it is not difficult to understand why they might give up if the system is rigged by gerrymandering.

Several Texas legislative sessions back, Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth proposed a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission. The bill had a committee hearing but died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Last session, similar bills were proposed by Democrats in the House. The Republican-controlled committee did not even schedule a public hearing on the bills. The politicians seem to believe that their incumbency is more important than the voters’ right to fair and open elections.

The pendulum has swung back and forth between the Republicans and Democrats. The manner of selecting our representatives should not be so erratic. Texans deserve a fair, nonpartisan, independent method of creating election districts. Currently, eight states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana and Washington -- have independent redistricting commissions. Fair Maps Texas, a nonpartisan group, is working to get legislation passed now so Texas will be ready for redistricting after the 2020 census.

Three bills currently assigned to the House Committee on Redistricting (HJR 123, HB 3928, HB 3421) and two to the Senate Committee on State Affairs (SJR 52, SB 1537) call for an independent redistricting commission. The next step is to get hearings set for these bills.

Please contact your state senator and state representative now and ask them to support hearings on the bills for the creation of a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission this session. You can also sign the petition at www.fairmapstexas.org.

Scott Lyford is a retired construction attorney living in San Antonio.