Bloodiest sausage-making occurs with redistricting

Corpus Christi Caller-Times
July 15, 2010

If redistricting weren't so serious, it would be funny. As Forrest Gump's mama says about life in the 1994 movie, "It's like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Most folks don't know, or care, about legislative and congressional redistricting, to be done in the legislative session beginning in January, by the legislators mostly chosen in this year's election. Don't care, that is, until they see a relatively compact Austin-based congressional district split into three - one reaching to Houston, one to South Texas, and one to San Antonio and West Texas. Or see a popular and powerful committee chairman from their hometown paired in a jumbled district with another popular incumbent. Or see a district drawn so goofily long and narrow that if you drive from one end to the other with your car doors open, you'll kill everyone in it. One thing you do get is a figurative barroom knife fight, among people in suits. It's a slight departure from Darwin's observation about evolution: it's survival of the slickest. (With the new provision that folks with a concealed handgun license get to avoid metal detectors when they enter the capitol, if redistricting gets particularly hot, there might be an occasional shootout. Probably not, but when people who take themselves and their sense of power very, very seriously, who face divisive budget and tax questions and battles over health care and education in addition to a battle for political survival, who knows what long nights, frayed tempers, and perhaps some whiskey might produce?) Some districts are drawn so illogically because an incumbent wants it that way. That's partly because some lawmakers don't want to get all of a sizable city with a popular mayor in their district, who might challenge the incumbent - particularly since several cities have term limits. It also can help the incumbent to have his district take in parts of more than one TV market. An incumbent has fundraising leverage to raise the money for TV ads in several markets, which some potential opponents don't. Some other things: *Democrats worry about an undercount in the census, particularly of Hispanics. No one disputes that at least some of them are illegal immigrants. But they, just like people in prison, are supposed to be counted for the census - not just for redistricting and allocation of congressional districts to states, but also for distribution of money for federal programs. *The House and Senate have each traditionally drawn the districts for their own body, and the other body routinely rubber-stamps the plan. Or used to. *Both House and Senate districts were drawn by the five-member Legislative Redistricting Board (House speaker, lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner, comptroller) - which also drew the districts in 1971 and 1981. In fact, the only year that the LRB did not draw the House and Senate districts since the 1965 passage of the federal Voting Rights Act and the federal court one-person, one-vote requirement that districts be roughly equal in population, was 1991. Oddly, the Legislature drew both plans that year, though they did face court challenges. Odds are very good that the Legislature will deadlock in 2011, and the LRB will again draw the districts for both bodies. *The LRB is only called into action if the Legislature fails to draw its own districts. If the Legislature fails to draw congressional districts, the governor can call it into special session, or let the chore go to a three-judge federal court. *The act requires that any changes in voting districts be reviewed, either by the Justice Department or a three-judge federal court in Washington, D.C., to be sure they are not discriminatory. This will be the first year since that became law that the Justice Department is in Democratic hands. *Texas' 31 senators serve staggered four-year terms. But all have to run in 2012 because the lines will have changed. Then, the victors will draw in January of 2013 to see which will get two-year initial terms and which get the full four-year terms. *In 2001 reallocation of congressional districts among the states for the first time saw more Texas congressmen, at 32, than the 31-member Senate. With Texas set to gain another three or four congressional districts next year, state senators will have several thousand more constituents than the folks in Congress.