July 8, 2017
By Josh Brodesky
What does gerrymandering really look like?
We’re not talking about the imbalanced maps. The silencing of minority votes. The cracking and packing of districts to achieve and preserve political hegemony. We’re talking about the process of making those districts.
What does that look like if we peel back the curtain?
Emails from the creation of the 2011 Texas maps give us a glimpse — if you can stand to look. They paint an ugly picture worth keeping in mind as the latest trial in Texas’ redistricting saga kicks off this week in federal court here in San Antonio. It’s a trial that could lead to the redrawing of districts before the 2018 election, and almost certainly will lead to yet another appeal.
Gerrymandering looks like attorney and Republican operative Eric Opiela emailing about “OHRVS,” short for “Optimal Hispanic Republican Voting Strength.”
Or, as he wrote in 2011 in a now infamous email, “a measure of how Hispanic, and Republican at the same time, we can make a particular census block.”
Got it? Making a census block look Hispanic enough to make potential legal challengers (which used to include the U.S. Justice Department) look away while still helping a GOP candidate win.
Gerrymandering looks like U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith wondering if he could “help” then-U.S. Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco, “If I gave him 3k more in bexar (either GOP or hispanics) and took edwards co in exchange.”
And it looks like Republican attorney Ryan Downton explaining to Smith why that would be a bad idea.
“I don’t think we mess with quico’s district — for your sake and his,” Downton wrote. “His is barely performing (or not depending on your measure) right now; add Rs (which will be Anglos) and you put a neon sign on it telling the court to redraw it. Bring down your numbers and you’ll have a Dem opponent every time. And they won’t be Lainey Melnick.”
Melnick, a Democrat, challenged Smith in 2010 and received a whopping 27.9 percent of the vote.
Gerrymandering looks like representatives choosing their constituents instead of their constituents choosing their representatives.
Smith said as much in a 2011 email: “There is one (precinct) which includes two condo buildings w many gop supporters and the sa country club adjacent to my dist,” he wrote. “Wld really like to get.”
He said he thought it might help Congressional District 35, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett much to the ire of Republicans, pass legal muster.
Such naked truth is exactly why a federal panel of judges found Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in drawing these 2011 maps.
In a 2-1 ruling in March, the panel of judges invalidated three federal congressional districts: 23, 27 and 35. The judges found state lawmakers knowingly discriminated in making these districts, which are represented by Republicans Will Hurd and Blake Farenthold, and, of course, Doggett .
Canseco, the subject of so much Republican concern in those 2011 emails, used to represent District 23.
In a subsequent ruling, the judges found the Legislature intentionally diluted the clout of minority voters in state House districts across Texas.
The question now is whether the not-so-temporary, court-ordered 2013 maps are too similar to the flawed 2011 maps.
It’s a legal question, but how is it really a question? It’s obvious.
A recent Associated Press analysis declared Texas’ GOP the nation’s big gerrymandering winner. The analysis found gerrymandering led to four additional Republican U.S. House seats, “which was more than any other state.”
By contrast, Arizona, thanks to an independent redistricting commission, had some of the most equal representation in the country. Arizona’s independent commission had plenty of political drama, but it worked despite the politics surrounding it.
The end product served voters, not politicians.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear arguments on whether gerrymandering for partisan purposes can be unconstitutional. Racial gerrymandering is already unconstitutional, which Texas has discovered after decades of legal challenges to its maps. But, in Texas, voting is so racially polarized — minorities mostly voting Democratic, whites mostly Republican — that racial vs. partisan gerrymandering is a distinction without a difference.
The point here is that gerrymandering is an invisible force that defines our political lives. Its worst manifestation is voter suppression. That’s what Opiela was championing with his email about making census blocks as Republican and Hispanic as possible. Dilute the Hispanic vote, and in turn, deny Latinos representation.
But it also fosters and fuels extreme views because gerrymandering ripples, creating super safe partisan districts.
Think of Lamar Smith, whose renowned climate denialism never costs him at the ballot box. Or think of Blake Farenthold, who shamefully pushed the debunked conspiracy theory around Seth Rich’s murder. If they represented more competitive districts, they just might have to moderate themselves.
As long as partisan interests shape these maps, voters will fail to get the representation they deserve.
Source: My San Antonio