A Good Old Fashioned Goat Rope

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K. R. “Doc” Vanderslice was a true cowboy. He was also my maternal grandpa.

He grew up in Northwest Oklahoma working as a cowboy. When I was a kid, my brother Kyle and I spent time on his place getting to do “cowboy” stuff.

Grandpa was a cattle guy. I don't recall him ever having a goat and am certain he never thought too highly of what my mother called “goat ropers.”

Now, most folks know that a “goat rope” refers to a big fiasco and mess. While he never would have allowed his grandsons to participate in a real goat rope, Grandpa did get a kick out of putting us in situations that led to utter chaos, particularly when he was partnering with my dad. Those two loved to make each other laugh, including at the expense of their progeny.

One of my strongest memories is of being 6 or 7 (heck, I might have been all of 8), when Grandpa had picked up a new Shetland pony named Dusty. Somehow, it was decided that I'd be perfect to “break” the horse.
I chased that mean little jackass of a horse around the corral, occasionally caught him without help, and tried to avoid getting bit as I fought to crawl on his back. Every time, over and over, he'd jump and buck and throw me hard to the ground.
All the while, as I'd get up, I'd look to Daddy and Grandpa, two men I loved who were, uh, keeping an eye on me – probably to make sure I didn't get hurt, but certainly to have a little fun, too. They were ceaselessly encouraging (and not just a little teasing), telling me “You almost had him that time,” or “I think he's worn out,” or “Hang on. You'll get it.”
But, no, this was a goat rope, only with a pony. It had all the signs:

  • It went on forever and seemed to get worse and worse.
  • There was no end in sight.
  • Nothing seemed to work.
  • What I thought I knew one time didn't work the next time.
  • I couldn't figure out what success was supposed to look like.
  • It really hurt.
  • I was covered in filth and it stunk.

A goat rope with, y'know, democracy. 

But this Watson Wire isn’t about cowboys or dubious moments of family history. No, this is about redistricting. (If that's the sort of rapid change of subject that makes you feel like you've been bucked from a horse, well, as Doc Vanderslice would say, “Just hang on. You'll get it.”)
Redistricting is the process of redrawing lines for districts represented by state legislators, Congressional reps, and other elected officials. Basically, people move out of one place and into another, so district lines have to shift with the population (legally every 10 years, though you can try doing it more often depending on how little shame you have) to make sure that an elected official represents about as many constituents as his or her colleagues.
If that sounds boring and technical, well, that’s probably how it should be. The problem is that it’s a very political exercise – always has been – that can affect which political party controls a particular legislative delegation or chamber. So things have a way of getting unpleasant and nonsensical really fast.
And that’s before the folks running the redistricting process in the Texas Capitol decided to make this goat rope even more messy.

Take this redistricting. Please!

Last year, the Texas legislature passed maps for state senators and representatives in its regular legislative session, and passed another map for Congressional representatives in a special session.
A number of us argued at the time, over and over, that the maps frequently failed to allow minority voters in some parts of Texas to elect candidates of their choice. Those in control ignored us.

The state, which is required by the federal Voting Rights Act to get preclearance before using the new maps, had a choice to seek approval from either the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge federal court in Washington, DC. The state chose to seek this preclearance from the court instead of the Department of Justice.
At the same time, some folks sued the state, claiming – quite persuasively – that some parts of the maps violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act. That case ended up being before a different three-judge federal district court in San Antonio. So the Texas redistricting process was falling apart in two federal courtrooms about 1,500 miles away from each other.
The DC federal court denied the state's request for a quick, summary decision approving the maps. It said that the court needed more time to investigate if there was discriminatory intent or effect, and that there needed to be a full trial to do so.
The court opinion said the state needs to use a more comprehensive definition of what it means for a group of minority voters to have the “ability to elect” the candidate of their choice. The full trial finally started last week. It's still going on and won't wrap up for a while.

Then, last fall, the federal judges in San Antonio – sensing that the legislative maps would not be approved or denied in time for Texas' 2012 primary elections – drew some so-called “interim maps.” That shuffled all of the timelines for when candidates have to file for office and even required new election dates.

And last week, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the maps that the San Antonio federal judges drew – yes, the same maps that replaced the not-quite-legal maps that those in control of the legislature drew. The Supreme Court sent the San Antonio judges back to the drawing board.


Good news and bad news 

But there was some good news: the Supreme Court ordered the judges to keep Voting Rights Act-related concerns in mind as they work through this. That’s a big deal, because some had worried that the Supreme Court would use this case to throw out vital portions of the Voting Rights Act. That doesn’t seem likely to happen at this point.
The bad news, however, is that almost everything else is up in the air right now, particularly when it comes to this year’s legislative and Congressional elections:

  • We basically have no maps.
  • Thus, if you live in Texas, you have no way to know for sure who you’ll be voting on this year to represent you in the legislature or in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • The primary elections, which had already been postponed from March until April, now probably can’t be held until sometime after that – unless both of the courts in San Antonio and Washington really hustle.
  • The whole mess is now split between a court in San Antonio, which is trying to draw interim maps that the Supreme Court will like, and the court in Washington DC, which is evaluating the legislatively drawn maps in the context of the Voting Rights Act and trying to figure out a permanent solution.

I’m missing Daddy, Grandpa and even Dusty right about now.


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