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TexPIRG calls for Redistricting Reform to be made a priority of the 80th Session of the Texas Legislature

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DECEMBER 29, 2006
9:00 AM

CONTACT: US PIRG
Jeff Brooks, (512) 479-7287
Steve Blackledge, 916-448-4516
Gary Kalman, 202-546-9707 x311

 
TexPIRG Calls for Redistricting Reform to Be Made a Priority of the 80th Session of the Texas Legislature
 

WASHINGTON - December 29 - The time is right for a serious push to reform the system of congressional redistricting in Texas, according to the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG).

“In a real democracy, the voters choose their representatives, not the other way around,” said Jeff Brooks, Advocate for TexPIRG. “The citizens of Texas deserve a system of congressional redistricting that expresses the democratically-expressed will of the people, rather than a system that only serves partisan political goals.”

Partisan redistricting, also known as “gerrymandering,” takes place when the majority party in the legislature redraws the congressional district maps so as to maximize the advantage to their own party. By carefully studying data from past elections, the majority party arranges the map so that supporters of the minority party fall into as few districts as possible, while their own supporters are given as many districts as possible. Consequently, the majority party gains a far greater share of congressional representation than their share of the congressional vote.

“This problem has been around for a long time,” Brooks said. “The Republicans and Democrats have both done it. It’s high time for both parties to look to the interests of the people of Texas, rather than their own partisan advantage.”

According to Brooks, the 80th Legislature has a unique opportunity to address the redistricting issue. The anger from the 2003 redistricting battle has largely faded and enough time remains until the next round of redistricting in 2011 for legislators to look at all options. Steadily changing demographics are causing members of both parties to consider the future political landscape of the state. Furthermore, with several new members and the possibility of a shakeup in the legislative leadership, the legislature will be able to look at the issue with a fresh perspective.

According to TexPIRG, because partisan redistricting creates districts that overwhelmingly favor a specific party, few of the congressional districts in Texas are genuinely competitive. Most congressional elections have, to all intents and purposes, been decided ahead of time, before the first citizen walks into a voting booth. “If you’re unlucky enough to be a Republican in a Democratic district or a Democrat in a Republican district, your right to vote has effectively been taken away,” Brooks said.

Furthermore, gerrymandering results in communities being unfairly split into several congressional districts, rather than having a district of their own. For example, Austin is a heavily Democratic community, but two of Austin’s three congressional representatives are Republicans. Partisan redistricting also dilutes the political power of rural areas vis-à-vis urban areas, negatively affecting rural influence over such critical issues as water rights. The democratically-expressed wishes of citizens are pushed aside in the pursuit of partisan advantage.

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that a legislature can draw new congressional districts whenever it wants, rather than the traditionally-accepted time frame of once per decade. This raises the disturbing prospect of a bitter round of redistricting every time the state legislative changes hands. In short, under our current system, we face the very real possibility of complete legislative paralysis.

According to TexPIRG, the best solution to this problem is the creation of an independent bi-partisan committee of citizens, with strict conflict-of-interest provisions, to oversee the redistricting process every ten years. Specific criteria for redistricting plans should also be included in any legislation, including prohibitions against plans that specifically favor or discriminate against any political party or other group. Many other states, ranging from Idaho to New Jersey have enacted such legislation and have found the results to be very successful.

In previous legislative sessions, State Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) has introduced legislation which meets several of these goals. His bill passed the Senate in the last session but died in committee in the House. Wentworth has stated that he will again file his bill in the 80th Legislative Session. Representative Mark Strama (D-Austin) has already pre-filed similar legislation in the House and Representative Allan Ritter (D-Nederland) has proposed legislation which would limit redistricting to once per decade. TexPIRG strongly supports these efforts and applauds their bi-partisan nature.

“If we can establish a bi-partisan redistricting committee and set common sense criteria for redistricting plans, the Texas congressional delegation will once again be chosen by the people of Texas,” Brooks said. “The timing and the changing political landscape give the 80th Legislature a golden opportunity to reform the redistricting system. I hope they seize the opportunity with both hands.”

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