You can make political districts the same size, but you can’t make them politically equal.
Lawmakers will spend the next six months drawing political maps for Texas, doing their decennial readjustment to make sure each district has the same number of people. But when they’re done, some parts of the state will still get more political attention than others, and the voters have only themselves to blame.
Politicians care most about the part of the population that votes. El Paso County has 92,680 more people than Denton County, for instance. But Denton turned out 42,043 more voters in November. Which is more attractive to a statewide candidate?
New 2010 census numbers put the state’s population at 25.1 million, up from 20.9 million in 2000. In the next few months, the counters will get more specific about where those people are. The Legislature will divide the total population by the number of members in each body — 36 Texans in Congress, 31 in the state Senate, 150 in the state House and 15 on the State Board of Education — and draw political districts of equal size for each.
Districts must have the same numbers of people so that, for instance, each of the state’s 31 Senate districts will have 811,147 Texans in it. But they’re never the same size in voter participation, and ultimately, there’s no way to tell without an election or two.
In 2002, John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, faced a Republican in his Senate re-election bid and won with 62,458 votes — 60.4 percent of those cast. Joe Sullivan, a San Antonio Democrat, got nearly as many votes — 61,899 — while losing to Senator Jeff Wentworth, Republican of San Antonio. Sullivan captured just 30.2 percent of the votes cast in his race, in a district the same size in population.
In 2004, after new congressional seats were drawn and district-to-district populations equalized, Lamar Smith, a Republican, was re-elected in a San Antonio-based district that turned out 341,119 voters. At the same time, Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Houston, was winning re-election in a district where less than half as many people voted: 152,988.
All redistricting does is give officeholders and their peers districts of equal size. It gives residents a chance to choose their representatives. But it doesn’t require them to vote, and you can play politics with the results.
Democrats out to beat state Rep. Kevin Bailey of Houston in their own primary a few years ago had noticed something about his district that made him vulnerable. Where it might take a large number of votes to knock off someone in a high turnout district, you could turn his anemic district on its head by attracting just a few new people to the polls.
Bailey got almost 70 percent of the votes in the 2006 primary but only had 517 more supporters than his opponent. His foes went after him in the 2008 primary, and while turnout was way up with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the ballot, Bailey lost to Armando Walle, who got out early and started targeting people who hadn’t been voting for the incumbent.
The new maps will be drawn next year by a Legislature that can reasonably be expected to try to institutionalize the results of the Nov. 2 Republican stampede. The 101 Republicans in the House will be trying to draw 101 safe Republican seats and, failing that, to draw as many safe seats as they can, putting the remaining Democrats into swing districts.
Senators on the other side of the Capitol rotunda will be doing the same thing. Together, the Republicans in both chambers will attempt to keep their party’s stamp on a congressional delegation of 23 Republicans and nine Democrats (to keep the same proportions with four new seats, they’d have 26 Republicans and 10 Democrats, or three to the Republicans and one to the Democrats).
The districts will be the same size overall, but not at all equal in adult population, voter registration, voter participation and geographic size. It won’t affect each member’s clout in Congress, or in the statehouse, or on the State Board of Education, where every vote counts the same. But it’ll matter. A governor who gets more votes from one district than from another might find he’s got a favorite when it comes time to choose winners and losers.
Redistricting is designed to even things up, or to at least give voters an opportunity to do so. You can lead them to the opportunity, but you can’t make them vote. The size of their clout is up to them.