Dave McNeely: Redistricting and gridlock

Legislative redistricting may seem like a strange concentration for someone leaving the White House. But President Barack Obama plans to make altering that process a big part of his life after the presidency.

“I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around,” Obama said in his final State of the Union address on Jan. 13.

“Let a bipartisan group do it,” he added off-script.

In mid-October, Obama handpicked former Attorney General Eric Holder to head a new group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Holder had helped oversee redistricting litigation by the administration during his tenure.

“American voters deserve fair maps that represent our diverse communities – and we need a coordinated strategy to make that happen,” Holder said in a statement. “This unprecedented new effort will ensure Democrats have a seat at the table to create fairer maps after 2020.”

Obama and Holder are hoping to help produce a Congress and legislatures that are less confrontational and often gridlocked along partisan lines and more geared toward achieving compromise than he has encountered for much of the last eight years.

He thinks that because of creative, partisan redistricting, too many districts have been drawn to produce only a Republican or a Democrat. The result has caused the political middle to disappear.

The creative redistricting happens because our federal and state constitutions require us to readjust district boundaries after the decennial census every 10 years.

For congressional districts, there is a reapportionment among the states. The reason is to adjust the alterations in population, to give each state its due portion of the 435 congressional districts.

For instance, Texas has decade by decade gained an increasing number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives – four in 2011, bringing the Texas House delegation to 36 members.

While seven states have redistricting commissions and a few others have advisory commissions, in most states the legislatures themselves are responsible for legislative and congressional redistricting.

There is a natural tendency in most states for the political party in control at the time of redistricting to redraw district lines to help themselves at the expense of the other party.

While the presumed goal of legislative and congressional districting is to make the districts as “compact and contiguous” as possible, in real political life, they can be anything but – resembling a tarantula, or a snake, the Philippine Islands, or even a salamander.

The creation of a salamander-looking district in Massachusetts in 1812, signed into law by Gov. Elbridge Gerry, packed the Federalist Party’s senators into a few districts to give disproportionate representation to his own Democratic-Republicans.

A satirical cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale in the Boston Gazette referred to the new district as “The Gerry-mander.”

That produced the verb “gerrymander,” which stands for the process of creatively drawing legislative districts for political advantage.

In 2009, President Obama and the Democrats in control in the House and Senate scored a big victory, and on Christmas Eve, he signed into law the landmark Affordable Care Act, nicknamed “Obamacare.”

But 2010, when it began taking effect, was an election year.

The party of a new president usually loses congressional seats in the following midterm election. But the Republicans were so mad about Obamacare that it was worse.

The Democrats lost 63 House seats, and control of the House, and six Senate seats, reducing their majority there to 53-47.

Republicans also made a huge gain of 680 state legislative seats and increased their governorships to 29 – just before the decennial redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines in 2011.

The Republican growth continued. In 2014, the GOP regained control of the Senate, 54-46. And the party increased its margin in the House by 13 seats, a 247-188 edge.

Obama may have an interesting ally — aimed not directly at partisan redistricting, but at the voter suppression it has enabled: The League of Women Voters of the United States.

Chris Carson, the nonpartisan group’s president, in a statement Nov. 23 said that since the U. S. Supreme Court rolled back some key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, elected officials in several states have done voter purges, trimmed early voting, reduced polling places, passed strict voter photo ID laws and made voter registration harder.

The League listed 13 states — including Texas — that “rigged” their elections. Of the 13 states, Texas and 10 others have Republican-dominated legislatures and governors.

She said the League will take a stand in statehouses and courtrooms nationwide to ensure no voters are left behind.

“This election was rigged,” Carson declared. “And it needs to stop.”

McNeely, former columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, writes a weekly political column for more than two dozen newspapers.

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