Of Dragons, Dogs Wearing Antlers, and Texas Redistricting

The title is a reference to descriptions by the Austin American-Statesman’s Ken Herman of his favorite bits of testimony from the recently concluded first phase of the redistricting hearings going on in San Antonio. In his Sunday op-ed piece (behind the paywall at www.mystateman.com), Herman compares the evergreen demand for redistricting litigators to the evergreen demand for tattoo removers, because (in a nice turn of phrase), people often get tired of the lines drawn on them.

Mr. Herman was in a particularly folksy mood when he wrote this piece, to the point where he is almost frustratingly oblique about the specifics of the current litigation. That’s fine – he’s not trying to do straight reporting. But given the limited press coverage of the testimony offered, it might have been nice if he had provided a slightly more grounded piece than something which more or less reads as, “Lawyers Say the Darnedest Things!”

As a backgrounder on the suit, the opinion piece is somewhat biased, relying on the narrative that when the Democratic Party was effectively the sole party in Texas, the Legislature was free to use redistricting to ensure that the Democrats would stay in power, but when the Republican Party tries to do the same thing, the Republicans aren’t given as much room to maneuver.

What the Repubs did was discriminate on the basis of party, which is kind of what they’re supposed to do. There are rules and laws about that, but there are even tighter rules against discriminating based on race. And it just so happens that an overwhelming majority of Hispanics and African-Americans vote Democratic. So by bank shot if nothing else, discriminating against Democrats often equals discrimination against Hispanics and African-Americans.

So the fact may be that the GOP, when it’s running the show, has less freedom to mess with Dems than when it’s the other way around.

Herman, Ken, “Redistricting carousel a ride the never stops” Austin American-Statesman (July 27, 2014, p. E3).

This is followed by a statement that might draw a few angry letters to the editor.

That’s because Repubs tend to be white. There’s nothing wrong with white people as a group, but there are fewer laws protecting them in such matters.


Mr. Herman then goes on to say that for some attorneys, the motive behind redistricting doesn’t matter, but merely whether or not a change in boundaries has diluted the voting strength of minority voters, and that it was the racial discrimination practiced by the racist Southern Democrats that compelled the need for protective laws in the first place.

In other words, Mr. Herman is making the defendants’ case to the public, since the court would likely only impose Department of Justice oversight with respect to voting upon a legal determination that the 2011 redistricting plan amounted to intentional discrimination (per Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act).

But his “aw shucks, I’m just a simple newspaperman telling it like I see it” tone is misleading. He neglects to mention that a significant part of the state’s growth in population came from minority voting populations, but that the added U.S. Congressional seats were disproportionately distributed to conservative white populations. In the course of failing to actually describe any of the litigation, he also neglects to mention the specific strategy used by the GOP to reapportion the growing population.

When initiating the redistricting process in 2011, the Republicans could have written to the Texas Legislative Council (the technical wonks who maintain the software, maps, and demographic information used in redistricting), and asked, “Dear Legislative Council. Please show us where the Democrats and Republicans in Texas are located, so that we can draw safe Republican districts.”

Instead, the Republicans asked the Texas Legislative Council to figure out where the non-voting Hispanics lived, so that those Hispanics could safely be split off from existing districts and added to newly created Republican districts, giving the new districts the appearance of being “minority-opportunity” districts without actually being “minority opportunity” districts. The whole focus wasn’t on the party identification of the voters, but on the race of the voting-age inhabitants.

In other words, the Republican strategy relied on intentionally diluting minority voting strength. The question for the court is whether such a strategy constituted intentional discrimination on the basis of race.

Mr. Herman is a good writer, and I’ve enjoyed his rambling op-eds. But his thoughts on redistricting frustrate me, in that (1) he is dismissive of the whole redistricting process as make-work for lawyers; (2) he views the 2011 redistricting plan as something that, if it did do anything wrong,  probably only diluted minority voting strength by accident, and (3) he managed to get about 40 column inches of copy with highlights about tattoo removal, the funny animal shapes that redistricting makes, and the goofy things that lawyers and legislators say when defusing the tension of redistricting fights. But he left out the Voting Rights Act, the Shelby County decision, the changing demographics of the state, and that the Federal District Court in D.C. had already determined that the 2011 Texas Congressional and state House redistricting plans could not be cleared for implementation because they violated the Voting Rights Act.

How Often Should Offices Come Up For Election?

In the course of trading comments with Charles Kuffner about a Houston Community College District trustee who, as a conclusive matter of law, calls a warehouse his domicile, I pointed out that candidate eligibility issues like residence are generally settled by the voters, and that if the trustee is perceived as an outsider, his seat on the college district board becomes more attractive to other challengers. Mr. Kuffner pointed out that while the trustee might have been made more vulnerable because of questions about residence, the seat doesn’t go up for election again for another 5 years, because the trustees are elected to 6-year terms.

Once upon a time in Texas (between 1876 and 1894), in reaction to an unpopular Reconstruction government, the people of Texas specified that no term of public office could exceed two years. Tex. Const. Art. XVI, Sec. 30.

That decision may have been a bit hasty. Two years turned out to be a little too short as terms go, and so certain offices were given longer terms in the usual ad hoc, piecemeal way that typifies our comically long state constitution.

With the establishment of the Railroad Commission to handle the crisis of rail line placement, we got our first regulatory agency with seasoned commissioners holding six-year tenures. Then in 1912, public post-secondary educational institutions got approval to have boards whose members served six years, which is why Dave Wilson (who was elected in 2013) will serve on the Houston Community College District board until 2019. Tex. Const. Art. XVI, Sec. 30a.

Statewide and then local offices got longer terms, and in 1954, all the county offices got changed from two to four-year terms, in return for some concessions. Tex. Const. Art. XVI, Sec. 64.

In short, if one were paraphrasing our state constitution’s answer to the question, “What is the duration of a term of office?” the answer would read, “Two years, absolutely. Unless we say otherwise, Which we do. Often. So two years, or four years for some offices. Or six years. But never more than six years.”

A Quixotic Take on the Redistricting Lawsuit

In Wednesday’s Austin American-Statesman (July 23, 2014),  Shane R. Saum offered his prescription for fixing what ails Texas partisan politics. Analogizing the redistricting process to a flat tire, he recommended that we scrap “winner-take-all” elections altogether, and instead adopt some system of proportionate voting.  (Saum, Shane, “Texas Redistricting Case Should Be About Failed Voting System,” Austin American-Statesman, p. A11 (July 23, 2014)).

Mr. Saum’s reasoning proceeded as follows – partisan gerrymandering is used to preserve the political advantage enjoyed by a ruling political clique. But if Texas had something more like a parliament, with legislative seats doled out in proportion to the votes received by various candidates, then voting turnout would go up, minority political representation would be assured, the party in charge would be forced to treat with a balancing and vigorous coalition of the Distinguished Opposition, and we would never need to worry about a lack of parity in voting strength when comparing voters across the state.

This is certainly an imaginative approach toward the issue of unequal representation and gerrymandering. It’s also a really weird way to sell the argument against winner-take-all, two-party systems, and most of the architecture of local, state, and federal representative government in the United States.

At the risk of seeming mean, I have to say that Mr. Saum’s well-intentioned suggestion is singularly naive, myopic, impractical, in direct conflict with our state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, and fundamentally at odds with political reality. Finally, and most sadly, proportionate representation is worse than no solution to violations of the Voting Rights Act. Proportionate representation is irrelevant to the problem of racial discrimination in the context of voting and elections.

Notice I didn’t say that proportionate representation is a bad thing in the abstract – as with so much in government, it’s neither good nor bad, just different. Governments that are organized to provide proportionate representation are perfectly workable, and we have examples of such governments from all over the world, usually in the context of national legislative assemblies like the Japanese Diet, the Israeli Knesset, the Parlamento Italiano, and so on. Various political parties run a slate of candidates, and then get to seat their candidates based on some formula that reflects the relative success of those parties in an election.

So one can certainly imagine an alternate universe version of Texas in which the state would be governed by a regional Chamber of Deputies whose membership would reflect various mainstream and fringe political ideologies, in varying proportion to their popularity. And one can also imagine a United States with a national parliament, maybe with a couple hundred members representing a dozen or more factions and parties, all jockeying intensely for numerical presence in a coalition government. And all this multiparty activity and coalition-building might very well suffer from as much or more racial discrimination as we see in our own world.

Two-party politics, winner-take-all, and partisan gerrymandering do not cause racial discrimination, and while these elements of the electoral process reflect racial discrimination, these elements are not symptomatic of racial discrimination.

The use of proportionate voting systems may aid in the elimination of two-party politics, first-past-the-post elections and single-member districts, but it will not eliminate racial discrimination. Racial discrimination is symptomatic of cultural tensions that will be expressed by and through one-party,  two-party, any-party, no-party and multi-party politics, as evidenced by the ongoing present race-based exclusion of candidates and suppression of voters in not just partisan elections, but also in purely non-partisan local races, single-party nominating elections, party caucuses and conventions, and even in measure elections that answer pure policy issues, in which there are no candidates at all.



Cameras In the Polling Place – What a Terrible Idea

Per Rick Hasen’s election law blog,  I see that those endlessly inventive folks in Wisconsin are contemplating allowing cameras into polling places in order to, you know, check up on what the voters are doing.

The policy reasons for excluding cameras, tape recorders, and other recording devices from the sacrosanct confines of the polls are many and obvious. For one thing, it’s certainly creepy and intimidating to allow someone to watch a voter as they vote – whatever happened to ballot secrecy? If voters are watched, it makes it easier for bad guys to threaten voters. To be fair, the policy analysts who were asked to draft the proposed law have pointed out that they think admission of cameras to the polls is not a good thing. But this is Wisconsin we’re talking about – the Republican majority under Governor Walker has already displayed a propensity for embracing bad ideas when it comes to voting restrictions.

There’s been no corresponding push to let cameras into Texas polling places, for which I’m grateful. And Texas law currently imposes strict prohibitions against such intrusions into the peace and quiet of the polling place. Tex. Elec. Code Section 61.014.

So, What in the Texas Election Code Needs Fixing Most?

More than once, I’ve daydreamed about a better Texas Election Code. But it’s a fair question to ask me what part of the law I’d fix first. What aspect of the law most needs correcting?

Luckily, that question can be answered quickly and easily just by getting rid of the elements of the Election Code (in Section 63.0101, and the related sections). that have gotten the State of Texas in so much hot water – namely, the picture I.D. requirements for voter identification that were added in 2011. So that’s at the top of the list of things to fix.

But what else needs getting fixed?

The second thing on the list would be getting rid of the pointless restrictions on deputy voter registrars. Tex Elec. Code Section 13.031(e), and related sections including Section 13.047. The notion that volunteer deputy voter registrars are somehow suspiciously bad people is silly and paranoid – as I and others have repeatedly pointed out, scheming criminal masterminds usually try to hide their crimes, not openly advertise their wrongdoing in the public record.

Some parts of the Texas Election Code just stand out as products of ill-will and general nastiness. Other parts are just as much in need of reform, but are not as obvious.

One of the most glaring flaws in the Election Code, and one that has lingered for decades, is the crazy, backwards way that the political primaries are conducted and funded. Tex. Elec. Code Chapter 173. That sordid statutory stain stretches back to the bad old days of the “Whites Only” primaries and the quaintly restrictive notion that the parties could limit candidate access by forcing the candidates to pay all the expenses associated with conducting nominating elections. When Federal courts struck down Texas candidate fees as unconstitutional, the state reacted by curling up in the fetal position, cobbling together a wheezing, falling-apart mechanism of taxpayer reimbursement for primary expenses that is … um … unique (“unique” being a polite euphemism for “bizarre” and “frustratingly unwieldy.”)

So that’s my starting place for a better Election Code – begin by rolling back Chapters 13 and 63 to what they looked like before the Legislature decided to hate the voters, and then follow up with reforms to the funding of primary elections.


Residence and Domicile Redux

Charles Kuffner has done a couple of nice articles about a now-completed lawsuit involving Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson. (see http://offthekuff.com/wp/?p=61703, and see http://offthekuff.com/wp/?p=61692). Mr. Wilson was sued by the community college, which alleged that Mr. Wilson wasn’t a resident of the community college district, and therefore was not eligible to continue as a trustee. The jury disagreed, and so (unless an appeal is forthcoming) Dave Wilson has been conclusively determined to be a resident of the Houston Community College District.

Evidently Mr. Wilson is something of a locally notorious political gadfly in Houston, and has gotten a reputation for claiming residence wherever he needed to in order to run for various public offices. People were suspicious that he didn’t really, really, cross-your-heart-really live inside a warehouse while at the same time claiming a homestead tax exemption for another property where his wife resided.

But, to his credit, Mr. Wilson treated the warehouse like home and had his blood pressure medication mailed to that address, among  other things.

The saga of gaming residence for the sake of running for office – what a tangle of legal precedent it provides. Mr. Kuffner has used the occasion of the Wilson lawsuit to suggest some sort of legal reform to our statutory definition of residence, mindful of the weeds and quicksand. Mr. Kuffner’s suggestion is to treat an out-of-territory homestead exemption as a bar to holding office within a territory (assuming the jurisdiction in question has a residence requirement for holding office).


I guess another way to ask the question is to ask why a person’s domicile is important to office holding, voting, paying taxes, or what-have-you. The short answer is that domicile isn’t important, except when we want it to be important.

Historically, domicile hasn’t been that important as a criteria for being in power, but has been more important as a criteria for being subject to power. To oversimplify – the sovereign governs a territory by means of might, or divine right, or whatever, regardless of the sovereign’s domicile. Meanwhile, the peons, peasants, or rabble have to live where they’re told to live, and abide by the rule of whoever is in charge of the territory that they are compelled to call home.

Obviously, nobody challenged Genghis Khan on residency grounds – his qualifications for office were amply represented by the piles of skulls he tended to leave lying about. But even in modern postindustrial democratic territories, domicile is often not a primary determiner of one’s qualification to office.

In Great Britain, one may stand for parliamentary election by completing  nominating forms and submitting a fee of £500 to an election official – the relevant application form is available here (at http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/electoral_commission_pdf_file/0009/83169/UKPGE-Nomination-Forms-Final.pdf) in case you’d like to give it a whirl.

Now, it’s not as though just anybody can run for office in Great Britain. Members of the House of Commons are subject to a number of qualifications, and do have to abide by laws that more-or-less modernize the candidate application and campaign fundraising process.

But candidates for parliament don’t have to live in the districts that they represent. They do appoint agents who are constituents of the district, and if elected, they have certain minimum obligations to their constituency in terms of accessibility and office hours. But the members of the national legislative body do not have to live anywhere in particular, and in fact, they may reside outside of the country altogether, as long as they are still subjects of the British Crown. For details, see the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended (available at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1983/2). Residency is important, but only for determining the qualifications of the electors – not the candidates.

In the U.S., the drafters of the Constitution were slightly more inclined to require a geographic association for officeholders, but they tended not to extend any sort of domiciliary test to candidates. Members of Congress must be residents of the state from which they are elected, but do not have to be residents of any particular part of the state, and do not have to meet any sort of minimum durational residency test prior to taking office. Article I, Sections 2 and 3, U.S. Constitution. (available from many online sources, including: http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlei).

I bring all this up as a reminder that there’s no inherent necessity to link residence with office. If we do make a requirement that someone has to consider a district their “home” in order to represent that district, such a policy choice is just that – a choice. Supporters of such requirements would likely argue that members of … say for example … the Houston Community College District Board of Trustees … should be residents of the community college district so that they will be personally invested in the problems and conditions of the district, forced by geographic proximity to share the experience of living in the Houston Community College District. We certainly don’t want those outsiders and strangers who live across the street from the Community College District to come in and impose their seditious ideologies and strange ways, do we?


Well, what is “fair?” I mean, any definition of domicile will involve some subjective standard for determining the sincerity of a person’s … hearth-cleaving. (Hearth-cleaving is my made-up term for domiciliary intent; it means, “emotional and physical ties to the one place in all the world that is home.”)

Legislatures, disgruntled losing candidates, judges, juries, voters, and angry political rivals have searched high and low for some universally applicable sure-fire objective test or standard for hearth-cleaving that would guarantee the exclusion of the carpetbagging outsider from office. But for every bright line test, there will come some sympathetic officeholder whose exclusion is unfair. Because there is really just one test underlying all these tests of domicile and residence. Is the candidate or officeholder one of us, or is the candidate or officeholder not one of us?





Six Politiqueras Arrested In Cameron County for Vote Fraud

This story out the valley (see http://www.kveo.com/news/six-cameron-county-individuals-arrested-voter-fraud-charges) has gotten some legs, in part because the arrests indicate that the net is widening following the conviction of Yolanda Solis for illegal voting in the 2012 Democratic Party primary election in Cameron County. For a somewhat more salacious report that identifies the factions involved, see: http://rrunrrun.blogspot.com/2014/07/hernandez-vote-harvester-t-chavez.html?showComment=1405543781968. I tend to agree with the blog author and blog comments that we’re likely to see more indictments come out of this.

While the arrests and indictments are interesting, I note that the alleged crimes are not particularly sophisticated. One reason why illegal voting does not happen in general is because the act of illegal voting leaves a broad and easily traced paper trail. Because, you know, in order for a criminal mastermind to actually illegally vote, he or she has to fill out paperwork.

Imagine how much easier it would be to prosecute bank robbery if every bank robber had to fill out a deposit slip with their name and contact information.



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