Tuesday's contentious debate on the state Senate floor over a proposed congressional redistricting map, which passed unsurprisingly on a party line vote, was just a hint of why graduate students at Texas A&M University — and even some lawmakers — are studying alternative ways to handle the process.
“As a citizen, I’d say that people don’t believe in the redistricting process. It doesn’t feel legitimate,” said Craig Welkener, who graduated this spring from A&M with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master's degree in public service and administration.
Before graduating, Welkener took on a project along with fellow graduate students Nicolas Norboge and Brady Olsen in which they sought to draw their own congressional redistricting maps. They did not take into consideration where the current incumbents resided or how to best keep one party in power, however. The driving force behind their map — and the title of their report — was “objectivity.”
“It would restore a sense that our process is fair — that the American political process is a good way to do government,” Welkener said of trying to bring a heightened sense of objectivity to our political mapmaking process. “I think we’ve kind of lost that.”
The group used four criteria in putting its maps together: communities of interest (are people voting with their neighbors?), representational fairness (are demographic and party groups given a fair allotment?), compactness (does the district look fair?) and legality (would it pass legal muster?).
Ultimately they produced three maps, none of which resemble the map currently making its way through the Legislature. Though, the students' three maps don’t resemble each other, either.
“I am fairly certain that if you gave 20 different people the same criteria and the same software, they would create 20 different maps,” said Olsen, who actually drew the maps using the parameters set by Welkener and Norboge.
The drawing of redistricting maps is ultimately in the hands of legislators, but even some of them have reservations about that. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, has proposed for years that maps be drawn by a bipartisan commission, to be made up of four Republicans and four Democrats — two of each from the Senate and the House — and one non-voting presiding member. The citizens on the commission would likely not be fair-minded good government types, Wentworth said, but rather “strong-as-horseradish Republicans and strong-as-horseradish Democrats” like Karl Rove and George Shipley.
“There is no human way to take partisanship out of the equation,” Wentworth said. “What I’ve done is to recognize that partisanship is going to play a role.” In his system, at least one of the group would have to cross over and agree with the other side. In addition to citizens knowing where their boundaries are, Wentworth said the benefits would be hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars — as well as a number of years — saved in lengthy court battles to defend each map.
“It’s a travesty that could be so simply fixed if we would do it,” he said.
With congressional redistricting on the call for the special session, he has filed and is hoping to pass a bill to create such a commission for the congressional maps. During the regular session, his proposal got out of committee, but he only had 18 votes — a few short of the necessary 21 — to suspend the rules and bring the bill up on the Senate floor. In a special session, without the Senate’s two-thirds rule in the way, 18 votes would be enough.
Wentworth is hopeful, though not confident, he can get the necessary support from both sides. “That’s the beauty of this,” he said. “Right now, neither party knows for certain who’s going to have that majority in 2021. All we know for certain is that whichever party is in the majority is going to kick the minority around — again.”
Even a map drawn with the criteria used by the A&M students would likely leave many unsatisfied. There’s an art to the process, they found. Compactness was the criteria that had to be sacrificed the most in order to create districts they felt were fair. “We learned that maybe gerrymandering isn’t such a bad deal after all,” Norboge said. “If you’re going for something else, maybe you do have to sacrifice producing some interesting looking districts.”
Due to the software and time limitations, there were some relevant elements they had to leave out, such as detailed voting histories (they used other factors to approximate those numbers).
“I don’t think that we would propose this as the map everybody should have,” Welkener said. “Our point is that we want to propose objectivity. Justice is complicated to achieve, and it takes a lot of software these days. But, I did learn that it’s possible.”