Republicans Face Obstacles in Redistricting


If there is any state where the power to draw political district lines is well understood, surely it must be Texas.

It was in Texas, after all, where Democratic state legislators fled the Capitol and later the state in 2003 to stall a controversial Republican redistricting plan. The Democrats ultimately relented and the Republicans passed their unusual "mid-decade" map. Partly as a result, the GOP gained six congressional seats in the next election.

As another round of redistricting gets underway this year, Texas Republicans sit in an even stronger position. They hold bigger majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature than they did in 2003, and they continue to control the governorship. What's more, thanks to its fast-growing population, Texas will get four more seats in Congress. Where those new districts will go — and what kind of candidates will be likely to win them — is largely up to Republicans to decide.

Republicans will get to enjoy the spoils of electoral success in many parts of the country this year as states redraw political boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives as well as for state legislatures. In November, voters put the GOP in charge of 29 governorships and boosted Republican numbers in state legislatures to the highest level in a lifetime. As a result of electoral gains, Republicans picked up control of all the levers of the redistricting process in Alabama, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

But even in Texas, Republican exuberance has its limits. While the party in control clearly has the advantage, the messy, complicated and often self-serving nature of the redistricting process can dilute that leverage. Politicians naturally want to draw maps that benefit their party, but they also want to create politically safe districts for themselves. And those two goals don't always fit together.

That's a common situation in the 37 states that let state legislators draw their own districts, says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina. "Incumbents like to stay incumbents," Guillory says. "Frankly, that's going to be another limitation on what Republicans can do. They may want to draw more Republican districts, but there may be some Republican legislators who don't want to lose their voters."

The limits of power

There are other considerations that will complicate matters for Republicans in Texas, as well as many other states. One of them is that many rural districts where Republicans have done well are losing population. Meanwhile, growth is occurring predominantly in large metro areas, which tend to be more politically competitive.

In North Carolina, for example, growth in the counties containing Raleigh, Wilmington and Charlotte all outstripped the state average. That means they will likely gain clout under the next legislative map. The real fight in drawing new districts, Guillory says, will be within those metropolitan areas. North Carolina law requires districts to stay within county boundaries as much as possible. That means Mecklenburg County, the home of Charlotte, may have to compete with suburban counties in its orbit, such as Union and Cabarrus counties, for new legislative seats.

In Texas, Kel Seliger, the Republican chairman of the state Senate's redistricting committee, says some Republican legislators representing rural areas may be in for trouble. In the Texas Panhandle, the mostly rural region where Seliger lives, Republicans now control all six state House districts. Seliger suspects the area will have only four or five House seats in the next election. The new map could force two or more sitting Republican House members to face each other in a primary in 2012.

Ironically, the supersized majorities resulting from last fall's elections also pose problems for Republicans. In some states, the GOP may be at its high-water mark in terms of control of the legislature. Republican freshmen who won in November naturally will want safer districts for future elections but doing that for all of them may prove an unrealistic goal.

Consider state House District 134 in Texas, a swing district on the west side of Houston near Rice University. The newly elected state representative there is Sarah Davis, a Republican who narrowly beat a Democratic incumbent who had won convincingly just two years before. As Rice political science professor Robert Stein explains, it would be natural for Davis to want to tweak her district lines to make her own reelection a safer bet. But it would be difficult to find more Republican voters in her area to help her future bids.

A commission for California

The federal factor

Perhaps the biggest wildcard facing GOP plans for Texas and many other Southern states is that the Obama administration must approve their new maps, both for congressional and state legislative districts. Since 1965, Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act has required that the U.S. Department of Justice sign off on any major changes to elections procedures for states and other jurisdictions that had especially bad histories of racial discrimination. 

Nine states must secure the approval of the Justice Department for their statewide maps: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Another seven states must submit maps that affect certain counties or townships: 
California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota. 

This year marks the first time that a Democratic president will be in power when the sign-off happens.

What that wrinkle will mean for the approval process is still unclear. In 2001, the Justice Department under President George W. Bush rejected legislative redistricting plans in Arizona, Florida and Texas on the grounds that they reduced the ability of minorities to elect their candidates of choice. A few years later, Democrats attacked the agency for how it handled the Texas Republicans' controversial mid-decade map. The Justice Department's staff attorneys concluded that the 2003 plan would lead to backsliding in congressional representation for blacks and Hispanics, but politically appointed superiors overruled them and approved the plan anyway.

Gerald Hebert, a lawyer who worked in the Justice Department from the Nixon administration through the Clinton administration, says that episode was the first case of political interference in the process that he can remember. Hebert, now the executive director of The Campaign Legal Center , a group that focuses on campaign finance and ethics, says the analysis of whether maps protect the voting power of minorities is typically pretty straightforward.

The agency plugs the latest Census data into the current maps and determines how many districts have a big enough minority group to elect their own representative. The agency compares those results to the results of the same analysis for the new map that has been submitted. If the new map has fewer minority districts than the old map, the agency rejects the new map.

Another test is more subjective, Hebert says. That test is to ensure that proposed district changes are not being done to discriminate against a racial or ethnic minority.

But even the first test may be open to more interpretation as the nation grows more diverse, with immigrants settling not only in cities but in suburbs and exurbs, too.

In Texas and in many other states, legislators will have to accommodate the growing Latino population. They also will have to take into account the migration of African Americans from urban centers to the suburbs, says Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Texas is probably going to be the location of the trickiest legal issues," Levitt says, "but I think the changing demographics across many of the covered areas (that have to get Justice Department approval) are going to force people to take a real hard look."

A hard look from the feds is what Seliger, the Texas senator, is expecting. "It's not unreasonable to suspect (there might be more scrutiny), because it's an Obama Justice Department," Seliger says, "and ours are delegations nominated by Republicans." 


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