By The Houston Chronicle
Sometimes you look at an abstract painting in an art museum and wonder what in the world the artist was thinking.
Take a look at the map of Texas congressional districts and you could ask the same question. The squiggly lines, weird shapes and awkward elongations can make a casual observer wonder why anybody would create something that looks so crazy.
Those bizarre figures scrawled over the tapestry of Texas reflect not creative zeal, but the madness behind gerrymandering. Now the nation’s highest court has agreed to decide whether those zany abstract artists in our Legislature were inspired by an ulterior motive. The Supreme Court recently announced that it will review whether district maps for both the U.S. and the Texas House of Representatives were racially gerrymandered.
The Republicans running our state government have argued for decades that their gerrymandering is partisan, not racial. But anybody who’s watched the redistricting process in the capitol knows that alibi is a fraud. The line between partisan and racial gerrymandering has become indistinguishable in the Texas Legislature. One of the main techniques Republicans in Austin have used to maximize their partisan advantage is packing African-American voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, into as few districts as possible. If you doubt that partisan gerrymandering has a racial component, look at the declining number of white Democrats in the Legislature.
However the Supreme Court rules in the Texas controversy, it has already heard arguments in a separate dispute with even broader implications. In a case out of Wisconsin, the Supreme Court will decide whether partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. The high court has repeatedly ruled against district lines that discriminate based on race, but never before has it struck down the idea of drawing district lines for partisan advantage.
Computer-aided gerrymandering has turned what once was an act of political mischief into an almost foolproof mechanism to rig the outcome of elections. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, have pushed legislation that would establish an independent bipartisan commission to draw district boundaries in Texas, rather than leaving this crucial process in the hands of the Legislature. That system is already in place in at least 21 other states. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly preferable to our current system of rigged elections.
If the Supreme Court doesn’t strike down partisan gerrymandering, state lawmakers should have the courage to change the way we draw those districts. Our bizarre legislative maps don’t belong in an art gallery, they belong in a history museum.