Roiling the Waters

GOP Redistricting Maneuvers Inspire Bill to Limit State Mapmakers

Posted May 21, 2003 at 6:36pm

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is continuing to gather Democratic co-sponsors for a bill that seeks to limit how frequently states redraw Congressional district lines, even though she concedes the measure isn’t likely to become reality this year or next.

Waters’ legislation is aimed at barring state legislatures from engaging in the process of redistricting more than once during a decade, unless a federal court orders lines to be redrawn to address Voting Rights Act violations.

Waters argues that Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution grants Congress a general supervisory power over Congressional elections, and, she contends, that includes the redistricting process.

“Sure, Congress has the right,” Waters said in an interview. “One of the reasons [Majority Leader Tom] DeLay [R-Texas] was able to do what he did … was he clearly saw there was an opening there.”

The bill is a response to cases in Colorado and Texas, where newly Republican- controlled state legislatures redrew Congressional boundaries this year with party gains in mind.

Democrats labeled DeLay as the chief architect of the redistricting plan in Texas, where efforts to pass a new map failed after a group of Democratic House Members fled the state and refused to return to the statehouse to vote on the measure. While Colorado’s GOP legislators were successful in their efforts to redraw Congressional lines, Democrats are challenging the new map in court.

Legal experts appear to agree that Waters’ measure could pass Constitutional muster, although they say it would no doubt be challenged in court.

“The feds can run roughshod not only over state laws but [also] over state Constitutional powers,” said Peter Wattson, who as counsel for the Minnesota state Senate has handled redistricting issues before.

According to Tim Storey, a redistricting expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, Congress has dealt with legislation in the past that regulated redistricting. Most of those bills, he said, were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s and specifically targeted gerrymandering.

He also noted that if the measure was to become law, the restriction might be hard for state legislators to swallow.

“States are not going to be too keen on accepting any kind of limitations on the redistricting process,” Storey said.

After sending a “Dear Colleague” to gather support for the measure Monday, Waters had 15 co-sponsors — all Democrats — as of Wednesday afternoon.

In the letter, headlined “End Mr. DeLay’s Partisan Texas Redistricting Scheme,” Waters argues that the measure would stop both Republican- and Democratic-controlled legislatures from engaging in extraneous redistricting for partisan gain.

Still, the bill’s partisan nature makes it highly unlikely the measure will ever make it out of the Judiciary Committee, to which it has been referred, or to the floor of the Republican-controlled House.

“There’s a great deal of hand-wringing over what’s been going on in the states,” Storey observed.

“It seems a relatively partisan bill in this context,” Wattson added, noting the Waters legislation does not differentiate between the redrawing of court-drawn and legislature-drawn maps.

Courts had drawn the Congressional boundaries in both Colorado and Texas before the 2002 election, after the legislatures could not agree on a plan. This is what Republican legislators in those states used as the impetus for redrawing the lines.

“I see no justification for saying that the legislature can’t come and redraw lines that were drawn by a court,” Wattson said. “Why shouldn’t a legislature be able to come back and fix things?”

But that is what Democrats are objecting to. They cite a memo from the Congressional Research Service showing that a legislature hasn’t redrawn Congressional lines twice in a decade for at least 50 years. Storey said he does not think it has happened since the late 19th century.

Democrats are also arguing that the Colorado Legislature essentially forfeited its once-a-decade opportunity to draw the Congressional lines when lawmakers could not agree on a plan in 2001.

All states, with the exception of Maine, are required by the Constitution to redraw House districts after the decennial census and subsequent reapportionment of Congressional seats.

Maine’s state Constitution does not allow for the redrawing of lines at the same time as other states because the state Legislature adjourns before census data is delivered. In instances where state legislatures deadlock or are unable to reach a consensus on new lines, state and federal courts have been forced to step in and draw Congressional maps.

Storey noted that some states are already prohibited from redistricting more than once a decade by state constitutions. In fact, that is one of the issues at the heart of the legal challenge to the Colorado case.

For her part, Waters appears content to take a long-term approach to having the bill become law. In the short term, she would just be happy to see the subject debated.

“This is going to take a lot of work,” she said. “If it doesn’t happen this year or next year, it will happen. It is not so important that it has to happen with this administration. It’s important that it get debated.”