OPINION: Area counties may be spared from gerrymandering

Election signs fill the walk outside Groves City Hall before Tuesday's election. Groves and Bevil Oaks voters will both head to the polls for elected positions and propositions. Photo made Monday, November 1, 2021 Kim Brent/The Enterprise
Election signs fill the walk outside Groves City Hall before Tuesday's election. Groves and Bevil Oaks voters will both head to the polls for elected positions and propositions. Photo made Monday, November 1, 2021 Kim Brent/The EnterpriseKim Brent / The Enterprise

Southeast Texans could find themselves in some strange electoral districts for the next state or national election thanks to the quaint practice of gerrymandering, but at least they should be spared from that at the county level. As our story on Sunday reported, most area counties anticipate only minor changes in the boundaries for the four county commissioners and their larger number of justices of the peace. One area county — Jasper County — might not see any changes at all because its population has remained stable over the past decade.

Several local counties — Hardin, Orange, Newton and Jefferson — are working with the Austin law firm of Allison, Bass & Magee to help them and many other Texas counties in their redistricting duties. Boundary lines must be reviewed after every census to ensure that each district for county commissioner or justice of the peace has about the same number of residents.

Fred Jackson, staff attorney to Jefferson County judge Jeff Branick, even went so far as to say that gerrymandering was not on the table this time. “The whole purpose of this is to make sure that people are equally represented,” Jackson said. “We don’t have any gerrymandering here. You don’t stack or pit one population group against another. We have consistent blocks of variant population in our four precincts to make elections and everything else more fair.”

That’s encouraging. It should be like that with state and federal districts too, but gerrymandering is too tempting of a habit for the two political parties. Most of the time, if they have the power to redraw district lines to get more members of their party elected, they will. Some states have neutral panels of demographers and other experts determine these boundaries, and that’s the best method. But it takes a lot to pry this authority from one party or the other.

In Texas, the redistricting being carried out by the state House and Senate is getting a lot of attention, as it should. The Republicans who control both chambers are trying to extend their grip on power. That’s not easy, because Hispanics account for most of the state’s population growth over the past decade. This group isn’t as solidly Democratic as it once was, but Republicans are still carefully redrawing district lines to minimize their influence.

Ironically, the Democrats who control Harris County, the state’s largest and home to Houston, are being accused of gerrymandering to defeat one or both of the Republican county commissioners.

Gerrymandering has been going on for decades, but with sophisticated computer software and the flood of election data, map lines can now be drawn with almost surgical precision to favor one party or the other. But as advanced as these techniques are, they can’t overcome one powerful factor: voters. Upsets still happen in our political system, and of course gerrymandering isn’t possible for statewide races like the ones for governor or U.S. senator.

Voters are often disappointed with gerrymandering, but they should never be discouraged by it. They should vote in every election, whether it’s easy or difficult, if the weather is good or bad. If enough of them vote for the candidates who want to end gerrymandering, it can happen.