Guest Post: Partisan Gerrymandering, Competition, and Cronyism in the Texas Legislature

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Editor’s Note: Ana Jordan is the Democratic candidate for State Representative in House District 47. She has made the fight against partisan gerrymandering a centerpiece of her campaign. In this guest post, she explains how gerrymandering has reduced electoral competition and led to entrenched corruption, both within HD 47 and throughout the Texas Legislature.

Ever since I worked in the Texas Legislature in 1991, I have been interested in politics. But, after I started my legal career and my family, I had little time to follow it. I would occasionally read articles about politicians who were either corrupt, incompetent or wholly self-interested and I would ask myself, “Who elects these people?” And I would go back to work and forget about it. Then, while working as a Texas Assistant Attorney General in 2011, I defended the State of Texas in the redistricting litigation that followed the adoption of new district maps that were drawn, clearly and admittedly, for partisan gain. After I left the Attorney General’s Office in 2012, I watched the negative effects partisan gerrymandering had on our election system, our political process and on voters. And it all made sense. I understood.

Partisan gerrymandering is about rigging elections. The Texas Constitution currently allows incumbent politicians to draw their own districts. To do this, they use historical voter data coupled with precise map-drawing technology to identify voters they think will vote for them and those who won’t. Then they draw the district lines to include the voters they like and exclude the ones they don’t to ensure their re-election. Currently the process is legal, but there’s a reason that it’s done behind closed doors. When voters find out it’s happening, they disapprove.

In states like Arizona and Ohio, where popular initiatives are permitted, citizens from both sides of the political spectrum have come together to bypass their state legislatures by obtaining enough signatures to place redistricting reform directly on the ballot. In those red states, voters by large margins have approved removing the responsibility of redistricting from incumbent legislators and vesting it with independent commissions. Unfortunately, Texas does not have a popular initiative process through which we can amend our state constitution. Amendments to the Texas Constitution can only be initiated through legislative action.

That’s why I’m running for state representative. I want to lead the fight for redistricting reform because I believe that partisan gerrymandering poses a serious threat to the democratic principles on which our elections are based. The biggest problem with partisan gerrymandering is that it deliberately removes competition in general elections. When competition is extinguished, it’s not long before self-interested legislators begin to prioritize their own interests above all else, including the pursuit of the public good. House District 47 illustrates this point well.

During the 2011 redistricting process, my opponent, Paul Workman, transformed HD 47 from a “competitive” district in which he beat the Democratic incumbent by a narrow margin, to a “safe” district that allowed him to win his next election in 2012 against a Democrat in a landslide. After that beating, no Democratic candidate even dared challenge him in the next election, so general election voters had no choice when they showed up at the polls in 2014, but to vote him back in. And that lack of choice meant fewer voters casting ballots. In fact, in 2014 when Workman faced no major opposition in the general election, 33,500 fewer ballots were cast than in the previous election year.

After two decades of being deprived choices, voters have started to catch on. Sensing that elections are rigged, voters all over the state are refusing to vote because they don’t believe their vote matters. And in a majority of districts they’re right. In this election cycle for example, 97 of the 150 state house races have already been decided because the candidates won their primary and they face no major opposition in the general election. The majority of Texans are general election voters, meaning they don’t vote in primaries. When only one candidate’s name appears on the general election ballot, voters have good reason to believe that their vote doesn’t count.

But voter circumvention is not the only problem caused by gerrymandering. Partisan gerrymandering makes it difficult for voters to hold elected officials accountable for bad conduct. For example, because Workman faced no Democratic challenger in the 2014 election, his voting record in the previous legislative session went unexamined. And it was in 2013 that Workman was able to pass House Bill 586, legislation that directly benefited his construction business by punching a hole in Texas’s sovereign immunity law. And while this bill was beneficial to Workman’s business interests, it was not in the best interest of the taxpayers because it opened the State’s coffers to potential lawsuits and litigation.

Indeed, Workman has repeatedly filed bills that are self-serving because he knows his seat is “safe.” In 2011, Workman filed House Bill 958, legislation seeking to limit homeowners’ ability to collect damages against construction companies for construction defects. He also filed House Bill 611, legislation that would have forced the state to bid out construction projects to private contractors before state agencies could perform them themselves using existing internal resources. These bills both failed in 2011. But after being re-elected in an uncontested election, Workman filed the construction defect bill again in 2015 (HB1784) and another bill (HB 3939) that would dictate more favorable terms for construction companies in contracts entered into with the State.

This is not a record of good representation or looking out for the taxpayer, it is a record of self-interest and cronyism. When voters lack choices and are not provided necessary information to make informed decisions, they can’t control, or be held responsible for, election outcomes. Workman’s last re-election was not the fault of the voters. When voters lack choices at the polls, the people responsible for electing bad policymakers are the incumbent politicians who refuse to change a system that encourages such results.

Partisan gerrymandering also leads to extremism in policymaking. Carving “safe” districts means that the only real possibility for an incumbent to lose is in their primary. So candidate positions are honed to appeal to the most extreme voters in each party because those are the voters most likely to show up in primaries. Republican officeholders who run and win in safe districts, however, have begun to recognize that when it’s time to govern, they have little space to negotiate or compromise with the opposing side. Politico recently referenced a Time article that appeared in 2013, in which Marco Rubio was heard instructing a class of students as follows: “If you know the only way to lose your seat is to get out-conservatived in a primary, you’ll never let anyone get to your right.” And Ohio Governor John Kasich observed in a Washington Post article in 2015: “We carve these safe districts, and then when you’re in a safe district you have to watch your extremes, and you keep moving to the extremes.” 

The shift to extremism by the elected representative in HD 47 has already happened. When Workman was elected in 2010, he ran as moderate, which is why he was able to win. After redrawing the district in 2011 to guarantee his “safe” re-election, however, Workman has had to move further and further to his right. For example, in 2013, Workman voted in favor of an anti-choice bill (HB2) that purported to protect women’s health when in reality it did the opposite. The bill passed despite opposition by a majority of Texas women, including me; and from the bill’s inception, its constitutional validity was clearly questionable. Let me repeat that. Our state government passed a law in an obvious attempt to deprive women of an individual right that the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly said is protected. That law was so extreme that the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down key provisions as unconstitutional. Texas representatives–who face no opposition in November have already vowed to try again.

Likewise, in 2015, Workman voted in favor of campus carry (SB 11), legislation that requires public universities to allow handguns in college classrooms. It passed with Workman’s help despite overwhelming opposition by local voters including gun advocates, Texas universities and state law enforcement agencies. There is no doubt in my mind that these votes were products of Workman’s concern about a Republican primary challenge rather than what was in the best interest of his constituents.

Finally, Workman’s newest project involves joining with Governor Greg Abbott and other Republican lawmakers to pursue an Article V Constitutional Convention of the States in order to amend our U.S. Constitution. Proposed amendments would include: allowing a two-thirds majority of states to override a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, federal law or regulation; requiring Congress to balance the budget; and prohibiting a federal agency from pre-empting state law.

And while these elected representatives are spending time and resources on issues dictated by a small but vocal group of primary voters, the big issues that the majority of Texans care about are being ignored. Since Paul Workman has taken over as State Representative for Western Travis County, our traffic congestion has worsened, our property taxes have spiked, our public school finance system has continued to deteriorate, uninsured healthcare costs have risen, our foster care system has failed vulnerable children, and our water conservation issues remain uncertain. Nothing is getting done because the representatives at the Capitol are more concerned with getting re-elected in polarized districts than they are with doing what’s right for Texas. Only competitive elections can bring back accountability, moderation, civil discourse, and a productive deliberative process to the Legislature. Until we fix our partisan gerrymandering problem, this district, this state, and this country will continue to suffer from political deadlock, extremism, corruption and cronyism.

Only the People can fix this problem. We can do it by voting, in both primary and general elections, for representatives who promise to vote for redistricting reform.


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Burnt Orange Report

Burnt Orange Report, or BOR for short, is Texas' largest political blog, written from a progressive/liberal/Democratic standpoint.

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