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Why the Redistricting Lawsuit Matters

Because — as both Democrats and Republicans know well — the drawing of congressional, legislative and State Board of Education district lines determines, to a large extent, the outcomes of future elections.

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Texas Democrats get beat up more than the kids in the Chess Club.

They’ve been getting pasted regularly in statewide elections since their last wins 17 years ago. But the real drubbing started in 2001, when Republicans got enough people into the Legislature — specifically, the Senate — to block redistricting. That pushed control of the House and Senate maps to a five-member panel, the Legislative Redistricting Board, composed of four Republicans and one Democrat. The board, naturally enough, drew Republican maps.

The 2002 elections then returned the Republican majority to the state Senate and toppled the Democratic majority in the House and, with it, the Democratic speaker. And those Republicans redrew the congressional maps and punched out an important handful of Texas Democrats, swinging that delegation to the Republicans in the 2004 elections and giving U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay the numbers he needed to become U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Not all of the victims of that particular soap opera were Democrats: DeLay’s efforts to elect the Republican state legislators who drew those congressional maps turned out to be criminal; he was convicted on money laundering charges and earlier this year was sentenced to three years in prison (he is currently free on bail while appealing the conviction).

So some of the generals fell, but the Republican army won the war. Democrats made some inroads over the next few years, coming within one seat of parity in the Texas House after the 2008 elections. With those numbers, they joined some rogue Republicans and brought down House Speaker Tom Craddick, replacing him with Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

But in 2010, when it mattered most, the Democrats got clobbered again in an election that resulted in a 101-49 Republican majority in the state House. Why did it matter so much? That’s the Legislature that drew the political maps that will be in place for the next 10 years, maybe. Republicans showed up in Austin earlier this year with big numbers and a chance to institutionalize their victory for a decade.

What’s the maybe? The Democrats are doing what the Republicans did when the roles were reversed and they were the kids in the Chess Club. They’re suing, saying the maps split communities of interest, violate the federal Voting Rights Act, disenfranchise voters, stack minority populations and on and on. The mountain of legal briefs would frighten a Sherpa: the pre-trial order from the three-judge federal panel hearing the case — this is before the trial has even started — runs 158 pages.

That trial is set to begin this morning, and the judges, apparently well aware that this could go on and on, have determined that it will end Sept. 16. If they find fault with any of the maps for the congressional, legislative or State Board of Education districts, they’ll most likely draw their own versions. Candidates have to file for office by Dec. 12, though the court can move that deadline, and the primary elections are six months away.

This is a classic Dull But Important issue. The layouts of the districts determine the outcomes of future elections, to a great extent. The Texas House has 150 seats. On the new maps drawn by the Legislature, only seven of those districts were reasonably competitive in the last general election for governor.

In those seven, Rick Perry and Bill White finished within 5 percentage points of each other. The other districts swung — most of them by wide margins — in favor of one or the other. Play it forward: A conservative voter who wants to knock off a Republican incumbent can only do it in the March primary, since the general elections aren’t competitive.

The court that meets today can’t fix that part. The legal definition of fairness, at least in redistricting, doesn’t have anything to do with competition. Voters can be legally enfranchised even when they don’t have a choice.

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Politics State government Redistricting Texas Legislature