It was my great pleasure to serve as the executive director of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. This commission of 14 truly independent citizens, with no past ties to city government or to any elected official, set about drawing the first-ever single-member districts for the Austin City Council.
The motivation of the commission members was to do the best they could to draw compact districts with roughly equal population that kept communities of interest together, and to allow areas of the city that have never been represented on the council to elect the candidates of their choice.
The commission members did an outstanding job. They worked tirelessly. They received nothing for their efforts, they were not paid and they all agreed they would not run for office. They heard from hundreds of citizens. They dedicated themselves to the task, they learned about parts of the city they were unfamiliar with and they produced an excellent product.
They had many critics who said they could not possibly start from zero and agree on a map by the deadline set for them. Their map passed unanimously, on time, and elections will occur in November.
They proved that ordinary citizens can manage this process far better than elected officials. The city of Austin owes them a huge debt of gratitude. And hopefully they have set a standard for Texas and the nation to follow.
Our democracy is in peril if we continue to allow politicians to choose their voters. Now is the time for a citizen-led effort to take the redistricting process back.
The current boundaries for the election of our legislators have become so convoluted and so gerrymandered for political gain that there are almost no competitive races on the November ballot. Of the 36 congressional seats in Texas, only in one of them does either party have a legitimate chance of winning. The same is true of the 31 state Senate seats, and about 140 of the 150 state representative seats are not competitive. Nearly every one of those races was decided in last week’s primary election by a very small percentage of voters.
In Texas, and across the nation, more and more candidates are running from the fringe of their respective party, either from the far left or the far right, because the only thing that is necessary to get elected is to obtain the nomination from the correct party in a given district. The candidate who most closely identifies with the most committed, most driven voters in their party, either liberal or conservative, wins.
Once they are elected, they see no reason to work with the other party to reach consensus on governing because they know they will not face consequences at the ballot box. Their seats are “safe.” No one from the other party can defeat them; they can only be outflanked within their own party.
It is incumbent on us as citizens to right the ship before it is too late. Unfortunately, Texas does not have initiative and referendum, which allows citizens to force issues to the ballot. In Texas, to make a change to an independent method of redistricting, we will have to get our elected officials to vote to change the process. That is going to be a steep hill to climb. They will not willingly give up their power.
But if there is one thing we know about politicians, it is that once they see a parade that is big enough marching down the street, they will leap out in front of it to act as if they are leading. Now is the time to start the parade. If not now, when? If not you, who?
Tounget served as executive director of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. He can be reached at TexasCitizenRedistricting.org.