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Guest Column: What Redistricting is (and Isn't) About

Republicans in Texas have their near-supermajorities. They could forfeit many of their arguments over redistricting, make the courts and most of the Democrats happy, and still get what they want.

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter called redistricting “a political thicket,” and it’s long been an accepted truism that it’s impossible to take politics out of the process.

But as Texas moves forward with the 2013 version of a redistricting redo, it’s important to remember how the fight differs this time.

One big way: This time around, it’s not about control.

That’s in stark contrast to 2011, when Republicans had achieved a two-thirds majority in the Texas House and were one seat shy of a supermajority in the Texas Senate. Back then, GOP map-drawers were desperate to find a way to lock in a Republican legislative supermajority for a decade — and to make a “go big” play for all four of the state’s new congressional seats.

But those efforts collided head-on with the hard demographic reality that more than 90 percent of the state’s population growth over the prior decade came from Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans.

The resulting impact — played out in courtrooms in San Antonio and Washington — wasn’t pretty.

But this time around, the starting point for Republicans is a set of interim maps that, from the outset, leaves them short of a supermajority in both the House and Senate and concedes a new minority impact congressional district in North Texas.

And while Hispanic and African-American groups are calling for more changes, none of their proposals would come close to threatening the Republican majority in the Texas Legislature or force the GOP to give up control of a sizable majority of the state’s congressional seats.

In other words, the Legislature has a rare opportunity to do the right thing by insuring that maps fairly accommodate historic growth in the state’s non-Anglo populations, including the nearly 1 million mostly non-Anglo new Texans added since the 2010 census.

If members seize the chance, they could give the state an even greater gift — an end to a “Texas tradition” of costly, nearly decade-long redistricting battles every cycle.

Already this cycle, Texas has spent several million dollars on litigation — and that doesn’t include legal fees it likely will be ordered to pay redistricting plaintiffs.

In the 1990s, redistricting took three regular sessions, three special sessions and several contentious trips up and down the court chain before the Supreme Court issued its final ruling in 1996. And in the 2000s, the state’s infamous mid-decade redistricting led to litigation that didn’t get fully resolved until 2006. Worse, each cycle resulted in multiple sets of maps and delayed or special elections.

To break the pernicious pattern, Republicans in the Legislature need to drop the convenient fiction that redistricting is only about partisan politics.

The reality is that even in nonpartisan elections in Texas today, voting polarizes along ethnic lines as often as not — even when the Anglos involved are Democrats.

That’s not to say Anglos or anyone else are hardcore racists. But it does suggest that groups have sharply divergent histories, priorities and visions of what they want in their elected officials.

Using fracturing, packing and using other devices to minimize the votes of minority voters doesn’t just hurt Democrats, it ensures that important voices are submerged or silenced.

At the end of the day, this fight is about more than partisan politics. The partisan preferences of non-Anglo voters in Texas may yet shift, as some Republicans like to predict. But it’s hard to see that happening so long as the game plan seems to be to marginalize rather than engage the state’s emerging new majority.

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Politics Redistricting