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Is This the Ugliest Redistricting Cycle Ever?

Redistricting is always messy and partisan. But this redistricting cycle, which won’t be finished until sometime next year, is particularly ugly and hypocritical.

In Arizona, the governor, with the support of two-thirds of the state Senate, removed the chairman of her state’s redistricting commission. In Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina and Maryland, legislators put politics ahead of everything in drawing new district lines. In Texas, judges are forced to draw the state’s map. In Iowa and Arizona, “nonpartisan” mapmakers produced maps with significantly partisan implications. And in Florida, nobody knows how it will be possible to abide by both the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Districts initiative at the same time when creating the new Congressional districts.

The fight for the House of Representatives has become so important that redistricting has become the front line of the battle between Democrats and Republicans.

State legislators, cheered on by their home-state Members and party operatives and aided by microtargeting and computer software that empowers users to test various redistricting schemes, increasingly create partisan lines to help their party, no matter how it affects constituents and communities.

Of course, redistricting is in its essence a political act. There is no single “right” way to draw a state’s districts. The one universal requirement, said the U.S. Supreme Court, which never makes a mistake, is to minimize the population differences among a state’s districts.

Given that, it’s not surprising that incumbent legislators use a partisan lens (and sometimes self-interest) when drawing a new Congressional map.

Reformers always talk about compactness, and that is certainly a place to begin to create reasonably shaped districts that include communities of interest. But given the way a state’s population is distributed, the need in some states to draw majority-minority districts for African-Americans or Hispanics and requirements in some states to avoid or at least minimize the breaking of county lines, compactness is a relative concept.

Each side grabs the moral high ground on redistricting when it’s in its interests to do so, ignoring it when that is necessary to gain seats.

On Tuesday, for example, I received a press release from the Lone Star Project, which seeks to rebut arguments and analyses from Texas Republicans, whether in Washington, D.C., or in the state.

In reporting on a federal district court’s decision not to approve of the state Legislature’s Congressional redistricting plan, the group asserted, “Texas Republicans have pursued a cynical strategy to draw overly partisan maps by undermining the voting strength of Hispanic and African-American voters.”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that was the intent of Texas Republicans, Democrats drew a map in Illinois and proposed a map in Nevada that avoided creating new Hispanic districts in order to maximize the number of Democratic districts they could create. In other words, Democrats in Nevada and Illinois did exactly what Texas Democrats accuse Texas Republicans of doing.

Of course, when Republicans made their unsuccessful case in Illinois and Nevada for another Hispanic district, they didn’t do it for Hispanics but only because they believed that it would complicate Democrats’ prospects in other districts.

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