What exactly is congressional redistricting?

The U.S. Constitution states that “representatives . . . shall be apportioned among the several states . . . according to their respective numbers.” It could well have added, “This activity shall be the meanest, nastiest, ugliest, and highest-stakes form of politics.” State legislatures must draw new congressional-district boundaries every ten years, based on the national census, so that the districts will be approximately equal in population. Redistricting is the process of redrawing these political maps.

Why is redistricting an issue this year?

Back in 2001, Texas legislators could not agree on a map, so the task of redrawing political boundaries fell to a panel of three federal judges. The result was that Democrats preserved their majority in the Texas delegation. But Republicans argue, with considerable justification, that the Legislature’s failure to address congressional redistricting thwarted the will of the people of Texas. They point out that Republicans got 57 percent of the aggregate vote for Congress in 2000 but won less than 50 percent of the seats.

What do the Democrats say about this?

They say that the Legislature failed to act when it had the chance and that the court’s plan should remain in force, especially since the proposed plan drew sharp criticism from editorial boards and civic leaders across the state. They point out that in the past fifty years, no state has acted to overturn a court-drawn redistricting plan. However, no law prohibits the Legislature from drawing new districts.

Who is behind the current attempt to redraw Texas’ congressional map?

Congressman Tom DeLay, of Sugar Land, the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, has led the charge. The Republicans’ majority in Congress is 229 seats to 205, and DeLay saw in the Texas situation a chance to increase his side’s edge. Soon after Republicans won control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years, in the 2002 elections, word began circulating in the Capitol that DeLay wanted Texas’ legislative leaders to draw new boundary lines. Governor Rick Perry and Speaker Tom Craddick quickly embraced the idea, but Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst demurred, saying that the issue had the potential to divide the Senate, over which he presides, and wreck the session.

So what happened?

The GOP holds a 19­12 edge in the Senate, and according to tradition, a two-thirds margin, or 21 votes, is necessary before a bill can reach the floor for debate. So eleven Democrats could block DeLay’s strategy, and that was part of Dewhurst’s reason for objecting. But according to Capitol scuttlebutt, sometime in late April or early May, the count for redistricting supposedly hit the magic 21-vote mark and the House started the ball rolling.

Why did 51 Democratic House members block redistricting by fleeing to Oklahoma?

Two main reasons. First, the process had been ugly. The redistricting committee heard no public testimony, and the Republicans’ map disregarded a standard known as “community of interest,” which means keeping cities, counties, and regions with shared interests intact if possible. Second, many Democrats felt they had been virtually excommunicated from Speaker Craddick’s House. The flight to Oklahoma—which made it impossible for the House to take a vote—was the culmination of a session-long battle between the parties.

Did the Democrats win?

In the short run, yes. In the long run, no. Republicans control the levers of Texas government. Governor Rick Perry can, and probably will, call a special session that includes redistricting, and it will pass.