The gerrymandering carousel continues

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On Friday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a set of interim electoral district maps drawn by a three-judge panel in San Antonio. This decision throws the Texas electoral landscape back into limbo. Yet again, the state has no maps to use in the upcoming primary elections.

The maps drawn by the state Legislature last year cannot be used until they are “precleared” by either the Department of Justice or a panel of judges in Washington, D.C., according to a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures prior to their implementation.

Texas decided to seek preclearance last year from a panel of judges, and the case is currently pending in Washington, D.C. With the D.C. Court not expected to issue a ruling for at least a month, the San Antonio judges issued a set of interim maps so that Texas’ March primaries would not be delayed. The Supreme Court’s rejection of the interim maps guarantees that most primary elections will be delayed until at least April, possibly later. The presidential and U.S. Senate primaries will be unaffected, as those districts are the entire state.

The justices, writing unanimously, decided that the interim maps did not conform closely enough to the maps drawn by the state Legislature last year, essentially accepting the argument advanced by the Texas attorney general’s office. The justices directed the San Antonio judges to redraw their maps to more closely resemble the original plan.

The Supreme Court, despite fears from many legal observers, did not use this case to call into question the continued relevance of preclearance. Instead, it limited its decision to the Texas case.

And so the gerrymandering carousel turns again. Texas still has no maps; politicians still do not know whom they will end up representing; and voters are still confused.

Of course, gerrymandering is nothing new in Texas. In 2000, partisan gridlock forced the judiciary to draw new maps, and a historic Republican victory in 2003 prompted the now-infamous mid-decade redistricting led by then-House majority leader Tom DeLay. Almost nine years later, the legislative redistricting process has failed again, despite early feints at bipartisanship.

Irrespective of whether the D.C. Court finds the Legislature’s 2011 maps legal, the confusion, consternation and litigation surrounding them has resulted in another failure of the legislative process to resolve this crucial issue — despite the fact that redistricting was billed as the second most important issue during the legislative session, just after balancing the state budget. The amount of time and energy spent dithering over districts and attempting to take out political opponents by less-than-democratic means resulted in less time being devoted to other important issues and a larger failure to effectively govern. Meanwhile, voters looked on, increasingly disenchanted as politicians prioritized Senate districts over school districts.

Allowing politicians to make the rules of their own game is somewhat unavoidable. But the legislative redistricting process has failed. Texas should act quickly to implement a non-partisan redistricting panel, the likes of which exists in 13 other states, to handle this issue in the future. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R–San Antonio, proposed the creation of such a panel to draw congressional districts three times since 2003. He plans to introduce his legislation again in 2013, and Texas would be better off if the Legislature gets behind the idea.