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Monday, December 9, 2019

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Changing demographics will weaken partisan gerrymandering, professor says


The Supreme Court decided in June that partisan gerrymandering is not for the federal courts to decide. | File art

The Supreme Court decided in June that partisan gerrymandering is not for the federal courts to decide. | File art

After a June Supreme Court decision that decided practice of partisan gerrymandering is not a question for the federal courts, a UH political science professor said that practice will become harder as Texas’ demographics change.

Partisan gerrymandering is the drawing of voting maps that favor a political party, The practice is the most pervasive and the most skewed in favor of the party that controls the state legislature.

“Most states are like Texas, the legislature still does the redistricting and most of them do it in a very partisan fashion. It puts a tremendous premium on who controls the legislature and the governorship,” said political science professor Richard Murray. “Republicans have run the state since the 1990s and have had free reign to draw the maps any way that they wanted.”

To ensure the maximum number of districts are won by a certain party’s candidates and those seats are secured, map drafters employ practices known as packing and cracking.

Packing is the drawing of a district to include the maximum number of voters of the opposing party possible, while cracking breaks up groups of voters of the opposing party among multiple voting districts so that their vote will be outnumbered in the districts they inhabit, according to ProPublica. 

“If you know that the other side has enough voters that they’re going to win some seats, what you try to do is to pack as many of those voters into a district or two so that they win it with 80 or 90 percent of the vote,” Murray said.  “That’s the case with the 18th Congressional district that the University of Houston is within.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat, is the current representative for Texas’ 18th congressional district and has held the seat since 1995.

Partisan gerrymandering loses its effectiveness over time, Murray said, since districts are drawn only once every 10 years.

“Usually, it’s toward the end of the ten-year period (after the census) that the plan is in effect because by then, maybe the population doesn’t look like it did when the district was created,” Murray said.

Ensuring that partisan gerrymandering is effective becomes more difficult in states with changing demographics, Murray said.

“Texas is changing, and you can try to look a bit into the future, but you can’t control that,” Murray said. “In states with dynamic populations, redistricting gets more complicated, and Texas is one of the most dynamic states in the country.”

For college students, state efforts to prevent students from voting is a greater issue than the impact of partisan gerrymandering, Murray said.

Low voter turnout has long been a trend among young people in American elections, with some students feeling like there’s no point in voting.

“You shouldn’t be too concerned that your vote doesn’t matter because every vote matters,” said Vice President of College Republicans Elizabeth Heckman. “Districts get changed and it takes our vote, one person at a time to change the districts.”

Changes in the drawing of voting districts may dilute or enhance the power of a citizen’s vote. However, that does not mean that your vote doesn’t matter, Heckman said.

President of College Democrats Sofia Sutterby said she knows college students can feel as if their vote doesn’t matter.

“I really hope that this decision doesn’t continue to discourage them,” Sutterby said.

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