Analysis: A Peculiar Way to Disenfranchise Voters

Posted by Ross Ramsey - The Texas Tribune on
Graphic by Todd Wiseman

There are many sneaky ways to disenfranchise voters — to rig the electoral system so that one group’s voices are not quite as loud as others’ —but the 23rd Congressional District of Texas might be one of the most devious of all.

Texas lawmakers have designed a congressional district that is so slippery that neither political party can hang onto it, and where it is impossible for anyone to stay in office long enough to build up enough clout to get much of anything done for the folks at home.

You will get an argument about that from the people who have held the seat. Will HurdPete GallegoFrancisco "Quico" CansecoCiro Rodriguez and Henry Bonilla will all say, in one way or another, that they have been effective representatives for the people who sent them to Washington, D.C.

Bonilla, a Republican, was there for 14 years. Rodriguez, a Democrat, was there for four, but served in Congress for eight more years representing another district — another redistricting tale for another day.

Rodriguez lost in 2010 to Canseco, a Republican. Canseco lost to Gallego, a Democrat, in 2012. Gallego lost to Hurd, a Republican, in 2014.

Next year, Hurd and Gallego will be on the ballot again, in a rematch. They’ll be testing to see whether the district is a reliable flipper or not: Its voters have preferred Republicans in non-presidential election years and Democrats in presidential years.

That’s a pain in the butt for the politicos. Life in an unstable job isn’t recommended for any but the hardiest of creatures.

But it’s really a pain in the butt for the people in CD-23. While they’ve been trying their hardest to remember who represents them in Congress, people in other Texas districts have watched their federal representatives pile up the seniority.

Kevin Brady, a Republican from The Woodlands who served in the Texas Legislature with Rodriguez and Gallego back in the day, was elected to Congress in 1996. He is now poised to become the chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways & Means Committee.

Midland Republican Michael Conaway was elected to Congress in 2004, and he’s chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, went to Washington after the 2002 elections and chairs the Financial Services Committee. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who was first elected in 2004, chairs the Homeland Security Committee. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, who heads the Rules Committee, he joined Congress in 1997.

First thing to notice there is that you have to be a Republican to have a chairmanship in the current Congress. But the second is that nobody from the 23rd congressional district has had a chance to stay long enough to get into the line, even for the top minority positions. And their voters, it follows, have that much less power in Washington than other Texans from more stable districts.

Other kinds of disenfranchisement are more common. Those more common forms — unfairly discriminating against particular populations on grounds of race or ethnicity or geography, for instance — are also against the law.

This one is more subtle, almost certainly unintentional and just as insidious.

In any given place in Texas, voters in one political party or another have been written out of their ability to elect someone from their party to Congress. Using the current congressional districts — which, by the way, are still under challenge in the federal courts — it is virtually impossible to elect a Democrat in a Republican district or vice- versa.

Eleven of the 36 districts were drawn to elect Democrats. Twenty-four of the 36 were drawn to elect Republicans. One — the 23rd, which stretches from San Antonio all the way west to El Paso and all the way south to grab more than half of the length of the Texas-Mexico border — is a swing district.

The November elections there are competitive, which is more than can be said for the other 35 districts. But where other Texans might be pining for new faces in politics, the officeholders in the 23rd change so fast that many voters never learn their names.

If turnover like that was normal in other congressional districts, the politics would probably balance out. But other members of Congress don’t have to worry as hard about their next elections, and they can also count on sticking around long enough to get some plum assignments.

And their voters benefit, presumably, from having friends in high places. Voters in the 23rd Congressional district of Texas can only wonder what that’s like.

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