Michael Li was the creator of the now-dormant go-to blog for Texas redistricting information (http://txredistricting.org/), but has moved on to bigger things at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Now that the nation’s eyes turn once again towards Texas and our state’s sometimes appalling politics, Mr. Li has penned this excellent summary of the suit, at: http://www.brennancenter.org/blog/texas-redistricting-battle-begins.
And this is the sort of lawsuit that very much benefits from expert analysis, because Perez v. Perry has outlasted the miniscule attention span available in broadcast media. My favorite bit of unhelpful analysis was something I overheard on our local NPR station yesterday – a pundit suggested that no matter which way the court ruled, conservatives would count coup against the U.S. Department of Justice.
His reasoning went like this – if the judicial panel in San Antonio finds discriminatory intent behind the 2011 redistricting, that finding will prompt “bail-in” review of Texas voting procedures under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act, which will then vindicate conservative arguments that the Voting Rights Act is mean and unfair to Texas. And if the judicial panel finds that the plaintiffs have not proven discriminatory intent, that will also vindicate conservative arguments that the Voting Rights Act is mean and unfair to Texas.
Ho-kay. That was 15 seconds of sound bite that (1) fluffed anti-Voting Rights Act weirdo egos; and (2) was otherwise bracingly free of any actually useful analysis. It would have been more helpful if the pundit had said, “if, and to the extent that race does get used as a proxy for political self-identification, are we as a society okay with discriminatory intent? That question is a central one to the resolution of this lawsuit.”
As things currently stand, it’s legally okay for the majority party to cement its dominance through partisan redistricting. But as a practical matter, partisan redistricting is racial redistricting. And racial redistricting as practiced by many jurisdictions is redistricting intended to neutralize minority participation in the democratic process.
For the past year or so (and really, for the past eight years (and really, really, for the past … um … many decades that I’ve been a voter (and really, really, REALLY, for at least as long as I’ve been intellectually aware of the political process))), I’ve struggled with the question, “why do we vote?” Why does anyone vote? Why don’t we all vote? What is it we achieve by voting?
I haven’t always been consistent. I’ve wavered between two poles, (one being, “to the extent we vote, or more formally, to the extent that the public franchise is extended to anyone, the act of voting is the inalienable fountainhead of sovereign rule. We vote in order to ratify the coercive distribution of limited resources among alternate uses.” The other pole is “to the extent we vote, or more formally, to the extent that the public franchise is extended to anyone, the act of voting is the inalienable fountainhead of sovereign choice. We vote in order to achieve the optimal distribution of limited resources among alternate uses.”)
Those two positions don’t seem very far apart, do they? But they are – they are as far apart as they can be.
I mean, ultimately those two formulations (as you parse them out) could be distinguished like this. Some people (mostly on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but not exclusively) say that to vote is to participate in community. It isn’t that the individual choices actually made by the voters are good or bad, or that voting is any more likely or less likely to get us to some sort of perfect outcome, but that whatever outcome we choose (even the stupidest, worst, most costly, or most cruel outcome) can’t be legitimized unless we’ve all gotten to voice our opinion of that outcome.
Other people (mostly on the conservative side of the political spectrum, but not exclusively) say that to vote is to participate in strategic decisionmaking. In order to get the best, least stupid, most optimal outcome, we have to endlessly tweak and fiddle with the voting process to ensure that the stupidest, worst, most inept or cruel decisionmakers don’t get to participate.
Thanks to an exchange with a smart, thoughtful political economist currently at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at U.T. Austin (this is a shout out to Eli Poupko (http://www.utexas.edu/lbj/phdstudents/eliezer-poupko), and best wishes on your pending article), I realized that I hadn’t thought critically enough about this very fundamental philosophical divide that runs like a canyon across the breadth of political discourse.
I was sort of an outlier in my thinking on this topic – I self-identify as being on the “
smart,” “ wise,” “ correct,” liberal side of most political questions, and instinctively, I wanted to tweak the voting process to diminish the impact of “ stupid,” “ foolish,” “ uneducated,” “ cruel,” “ dull-witted,” “ immoral,” “ fat-headed,” conservative voters.
But the source of better policy isn’t better voting. In one sense, there’s no such thing as better or worse voting, at least in regards to the ratification of democratic policy choice.
The source of better policy choice rests in creating a better electorate. And you don’t get a better electorate by exercising discriminatory choice with respect to who gets to vote. You get a better electorate by building a better society. And you build a better society through education.
As a postscript, you also don’t get a better electorate by preserving the artificial legal fiction that partisan competition justifies gerrymandering and voter discrimination, or that the Department of Justice or the Voting Rights Act is somehow unfair because it doesn’t foster discriminatory intent.