Tuesday, January 10, 2012

So howl the hounds of gerrymandering

   Whenever she sees gratuitous spending, my wife thinks like a dog-cat lover. She thinks of the animal shelters that money could build.

   Don't look now, but whole cities of animal shelters are being expended in legal fees by states across the country to promote and defend something Americans least need: noncompetitive, lock-cinch, party-rigged political races.

   It's happening in Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court this week heard a Republican appeal to court-ordered maps for Congress and the Texas Legislature.

   It's happening in Arizona. The state Supreme Court intervened to keep the Republican governor from tampering with a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

    It's likely to happen in Florida. There, majority Republicans in the Legislature aren't happy with constitutional revisions meant to take politics out of the process.

    State lawmakers whose party has a controlling majority long have exerted as their privilege drawing districts that cement themselves and their kind into power, even if the districts look like barbells and mud puppies.

    It truly is one of the gravest conditions facing representative democracy as we know it. Democracy is not representative when lawmakers have no legitimate opposition on Election Day.

     Here's another problem with these practices, circa 2012: The population growth necessitating additional seats in Congress in these states is coming mostly from minorities, particularly Latinos, who are mostly Democrats. To figure out ways to contrive additional safe seats for Republicans based on this demographic surge requires even more grotesquely proportioned districts.

     And it contravenes the Voting Rights Act when minorities' ability to elect people is crushed in said fashion.

     The Supreme Court, in the Texas case, is asked to side with the politically driven Legislature against a federal court that drew up districts more hospitable to minorities, more competitive in general, and more in keeping with the Voting Rights Act.

     With relish, Texas Republicans will point out that the worm has turned, that the Democrats gerrymandered as well when they had a lock on power for generations. True.

     One should acknowledge, however, that toward an actual system that reflects democratic ideals, nothing truly representative can come of this.

     Pamela Powers Hannley, writing in Huffington Post, observes that, "To the world, Arizona is a firebrand red state solidly controlled by Republicans." Yet voter rolls show a 30-30-30 split between Republicans, Democrats and independents.

   "How could all of this happen?" she writes. "Gerrymandering."

    Arizona voters thought they changed this. They created an Independent Redistricting Committee, which indeed last month issued more competitive maps than majority Republicans want. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and legislative leaders have tried everything they can to derail it this process, including the ouster of the commission's chairwoman, later reinstated by the state Supreme Court. The majority party in Arizona isn't through trying to circumvent what voters intended. Believe it.

     In Florida, voters amended the constitution to make redistricting less partisan, and districts more competitive. This apparently is an untenable notion to majority Republicans and Gov. Rick Scott. They are seeking to overturn the new rules. The battle lines lead, of course, to court.

     In the Texas case, the U.S. Supreme Court is going to decide if what the Legislature wants best expresses the people's will. Of course, it does not. It's what a majority party wants.

    If allowed to, Democrat or Republican, that party will do anything it can to prevent voters from actually influencing elections, no matter how many animal shelters it expends fighting the public good in court.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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