How redistricting is undermining democracy

In a commentary on YNN (“On the Agenda: How redistricting undermines the Constitution“) Harvey Kronberg argues that the redistricting process in Texas is to undermining representative democracy in Texas.

The only election mandated in the United States Constitution is the first Tuesday in November, but if only a Republican can win a Republican district and vice versa, the constitution is undermined and the only elections that count are the party primaries in March.

Kronberg, one of the most respected political analysts in the state, is overstating his case a little. The U.S. Constitution does not actually specify the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November as election day. That was established by law. Still, Kronberg’s larger question is a good one.  It is also an important question.

What is the state of representative democracy in Texas if politicians are designing districts to limit competition? Clearly, that is exactly what many legislators intend to do. Members of the Legislature are openly talking about how they want to make sure that incumbents are not paired against each other. That is, one of their primary standards is protecting incumbents from competition.

It is ironic that the Republicans who most vigorously endorse the virtue of competition in the free market are so anxious to banish competition from politics. It is also ironic to see the Democrats who so tearfully talk about protecting average Texans are so willing to see them represented only through a political lens. It is amazing to see the “tea party” politicians who most energetically attacked “politics as usual” last fall are now enthusiastically embracing one of the oldest tricks in American democracy.

Ross Ramsey’s Texas Tribune story on redistricting opened by noting, “Texas state representatives will choose their voters today — grabbing the ones they want, ditching the ones they don’t…” This reflects how redistricting has turned representative democracy on its head. Anyone who has seen the districts in the House’s redistricting plan can see that citizens are being treated like pawns to be moved around the chessboard and sacrificed in protection of their kings.

This is all part of the game that politicians take for granted. For them, sometimes the Republicans take control and game the system, sometimes the Democrats take control and game the system. They think that Republican gerrymandering in Texas is offset by Democratic gerrymandering in California. Even if they want to embrace the idea that the cheating balances out, they forget that not everyone is well represented by the two major parties. Average voters lose when party bosses load the dice.

The extinction of moderates is the most visible symptom of this form of political corruption. The Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress are both in need of the moderate voices that would help construct compromises. When we allow this kind of partisan redistricting we’re enabling another decade of the politics we say we abhor.

We also need to keep in mind that our democracy is increasingly resting on the party primaries that few citizens take part in. As Kronberg points out:

Texas is a state of 25 million, eight million voted in the last presidential election. Five million voted in the last gubernatorial election. You know how many people vote in the Republican primary? On average, only around a million of your most ideological neighbors.

The questions Texas have to ask themselves is: How much can we let officials rig our political system and still call it a democracy?

Pistol Packin’ Politicians

My long-standing policy of defending legislators is being tested by the Texas Legislature’s efforts to allow legislators and state-wide elected officials to carry concealed weapons to places where ordinary citizen with concealed carry permits cannot: bars, hospitals, churches, amusement parks, or correctional facilities. I believe that there are times when they must be allowed to be exempt from some of our laws because they are representing us. For example, members of the Texas Legislature are exempt from arrest for certain crimes during the legislative session and traveling to and from the session. This keeps law enforcement from an area from arresting representatives from another area in an attempt to silence the voice of competing communities. Sometimes we want to protect legislators from harassment from bureaucratic agencies as we protect our system of checks and balances. After all, you can’t check the excesses of the executive branch if they can punish you for doing it.

Yosemite Sam

HB 905 has been pushed because members of the Texas legislature feel they are subject to the same kind of risks as those already exempt from the concealed carry limits: judges, district attorney, and other legal officers involved in dealing with criminal elements.

A story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (“Texas legislators seek expanded gun rights for themselves“) outlines some of the debate. According to Dan Patrick, sponsor of the Senate version, “We go from one place to another — maybe five or six places in one evening for functions and events — and we may be faced with either leaving [guns] in the car or taking them inside and violating the law.”

This bill is the result of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. It is true that elected officials can become the target for deranged individuals. However, deranged individuals shoot people every day. The shooting of Rep. Giffords was a national story because of who the victim and not because of the criminal or their motive. Further, the Congresswoman wasn’t the only person whose life was in danger that day. Everyone in that crowd was at risk.

Some legislators claim the bill would eventually lead to broader gun rights for all citizens because granting a special exception for legislators is a step toward removing limits on everyone. There are two problems with bill advocates taking cover behind broad Second Amendment arguments. (1) Granting an exception to an elite is the wrong place to start. If circumstances dictate that a Texan has need of self-protection then the exception should be granted based on those circumstances and not limited only to legislators.  (2) Most Texas seem comfortable with keeping guns out of churches, bars, etc. In any case, exempting legislators from these rules gives them less incentive to change it.

It is not clear to me where legislators are invited to go where their guns are not. Are legislators meeting constituents at bars, prisons, hospitals, or amusement parks? Those don’t seem to be likely venues (or stops along the way). Do they feel unsafe at those church meetings or sporting events? I’m sure that legislators move from place to place and that leaving their weapon behind is just one more thing to remember. However, that is true for every constituent attending those events and the responsibility to remember the rules of concealed carry should be no less for our legislators than it is for the rest of us. If we can remember the laws the people who wrote the laws should be able to.

I am reluctant to call the bill silly until hearing more from all sides. Senator Robert Deuell, another bill sponsor, is generally a reasonable guy. However, this bill seems to anger Texans on both sides of the gun issue and creates the impression of an elitist perspective.