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Redistricting status in Texas from thirty thousand feet

I’ve been watching this redistricting mess play out with great interest, and a healthy level of both amusement and empathy for all involved.

From the start, the state’s legal team has struggled. It might surprise some readers that I don’t particularly blame Attorney General Greg Abbott and his legal team for this, although a lot of people (including Republicans) are. After all, you try defending the crap-ass maps the legislature passed. If Abbott’s team can’t do it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Abbott’s team is goofball-infested. Defending the indefensible is pretty rough work. The state’s whole legal effort reminds me of situations in which criminal defense attorneys artfully defend perps who damn well did it.

Various plaintiffs have struggled as well. It’s hard to know the right thing to do sometimes. Some have showed up for court every day loaded for bear and ready to rumble. Others have, like the Jack of beanstalk fame, been tempted to trade it all, for a handful of beans.

Much of my empathy has been reserved for the judges involved. I’ve never empathized more than I did during yesterday’s court hearing in San Antonio, in which it was incredibly easy to get lost in the minutia of hundreds of details having more to do with the mechanics of putting on an election than in the overriding issues involved with ensuring that districts maintain their fundamental purpose – giving all voters an effective voice in their representation.

The perfect example of the fundamentals: at yesterday’s hearing, a settlement was announced on the state Senate map. The legislature had passed a status quo map, with the exception of trying to get rid of Wendy Davis in Fort Worth. Maybe it’s because they can’t hear women’s voices. Setting aside my personal fondness for Davis, there’s nothing illegal about getting rid of her. What is illegal is how the state went about it, and the affect of doing it – they silenced the voices of the minority voters who elect Davis. Here’s a pro tip: if you want to get rid of Wendy Davis, I suggest you do so in the time-honored old fashioned way – by lying your ass off about her and convincing her constituents they need to fire her.

Why would we imagine that the state would settle on that map? Lawyers settle nothing until lawyers have to. It was established in testimony, both in D.C. and San Antonio, that map-drawers intentionally discriminated against minority voters in Davis’ district by fragmenting them, and that’s illegal. That’s what the legislature’s map did, that’s what forced the state to settle, and that’s the reason Wendy Davis’ voters will still have a voice in the Texas Senate after the next election.

It’s a similar situation regarding courtroom conversations on Congressional maps. The state’s lawyers  agreed not to oppose a new proposed compromise district in the D/FW metroplex, which would likely elect the candidate of minorities’ choice, in order to address claims of intentional discrimination by fragmenting minorities.

Yesterday a couple of the (probably exhausted and flabbergasted) judges wondered aloud if the bulk of the courtroom squabbling regarding the map for the state House of Representatives is only about a couple of districts.

Well, no. It’s not about whether there are 50 or 52 solidly minority districts. It’s about minority Texans continuing to have a voice in the districts beyond the hard core 50. It’s about the state’s efforts to silence those voices in many more than two chunks of geography. And that, in turn, is about whether legislators who represent those minorities are able to participate in meaningful dialog on legislation, or whether those legislators, like in the most recent legislative session, merely look on as witnesses, as an artificially-inflated majority assaults their constituents by cutting public education by billions, harassing them with voter photo I.D. laws, or ignoring attempts to make health care affordable to folks in their neighborhoods.

Texas has a majority minority population. There are 150 seats in the state House. The squabbling in court should not be about whether 52(ish) of those 150 districts should be the geography in which minority voices are heard.

If you’re the “quantify it” type, in addition to those 52(ish) seats, minority citizens were also decisive in electing their candidates of choice in House districts 57, 93, 96, 101, 102, 107, and 133. Minority citizens are also naturally emerging as effective deciders of their own fate in districts 26, 105, 132, and 138.

So if the remaining argument is about “just a couple of state House districts,” it’s only because lawyers cleverly, or foolishly, narrowed the focus. It’s not because minority voters in many, many other areas of Texas evaporated, were raptured, or suddenly moved to Detroit after Clint Eastwood inspired them during the Superbowl. And while the priorities of those Texans are just as real as the priorities of those living in Wendy Davis’ district, or the proposed new metroplex Congressional district, their communities are being fragmented in the exact same way, and for the same purpose: to silence their voices.

So, moving forward from yesterday’s hearing, let’s get back to the thirty thousand foot view. We now have a probable primary date, and that’s progress. There are continuing discussions about how the political parties mechanically make that primary date work, and that’s just spiffy. But please do not for a minute conclude that all the legal wranglings associated with this situation are about mechanics, legislative body counts, election calendar predictability, where Lloyd Doggett is forced to move his yard signs next, or the electability of any particular human being. And it is most certainly not about two remaining House seats still in question.

I don’t worry too much about the judges – judges have an advanced ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. But reading the resulting news stories this morning, I do worry about everybody getting lost in the mechanical weeds.

In the end, the final districts should be about ensuring that the minority citizens of this majority-minority state are not silenced due to efforts to fragment them into adjoining districts in which they have no voice. In the end, the districts should reflect an understanding of the difference between ramming policy down the throats of the legislators elected to represent those minorities, versus those legislators being enabled to participate in meaningful dialog affecting final legislative outcomes. That’s what it should have always been about.

Update: Burnt Orange Report has more on this.

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