When my colleagues shared Jesse Wegman and Damon Winter’s new article, “Gerrymander USA,” I knew I wanted to read it based on the topic alone – gerrymandering is an incredibly important issue. I just wasn’t expecting to read this article and discover it was about where I grew up – a large swath of land where “cattle outnumber voters” called the Panhandle of Texas, or the High Plains.
I grew up in Dalhart, Texas – about 30 miles from the small town of Texline that the article uses to represent the (extremely) rural west end of Texas’s 13th Congressional District. I can still remember when a McDonald’s opened when I was in high school -- very few things in my life since then have been able to compete with that level of excitement I had that day. As the article points out, this area is a “right wing fortress.” It was that way when I lived there, when my grandparents lived there, and probably when my great and great-great-grandparents lived there. According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, the 13th is one of the most Republican districts in the nation. And while I no longer live on the High Plains, I understand the area, the people, and appreciate my time there.
Americans are known worldwide for being an independent people. And there is no American more independently minded than a person who grew up on the High Plains. It’s one of the last regions in the United States to be settled by (non-native) Americans, and the people of this region have always had to scrape by with every ounce of strength in them. The summer days are often over 100 degrees, while winters include large snowfalls and subzero temperatures. The average wind speed is one of the highest in the nation, while the average rainfall is about half the average of the United States. This region was not, and is not, for the faint of heart.
So naturally, the people of the High Plains don’t take kindly to “city folk” who seemingly have a much easier life. If the representation of the Panhandle was determined by city dwellers in Denton or Dallas, there would be an uproar you could hear all the way to New York City (and talk of secession would increase to, say, 300 times a year instead of the usual 150).
But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, based on the new U.S. House redistricting lines, it’s quite the opposite. The people of the High Plains are now speaking for those city folk – the urban voters who would drive by a feed yard and call the herd behind the pens “cows” instead of “cattle." So why are the voters in Texline, Texas competing against voters in Denton, Texas for the same single member of Congress?
Because of our single-member, winner-take-all electoral system. Under the current rules, every district line becomes a battle line. And the victor of each battle gets “100 percent of the spoils” – even if it’s not always a fair fight. In fact, the politicians who draw the lines have every incentive to tip the scales towards their side. And in Texas, that’s exactly what’s happened.
For example: as Wegman points out in the article, over 95% of the state’s population growth in the last decade has been an increase in nonwhite people. But though Texas added two more House districts this cycle, there’s no new district where nonwhite voters have the power to elect a candidate of their choice. Though one cannot assume any group of people are a monolith, this may have something to do with the fact that Texas is run by Republicans and over 65% of nonwhite voters in Texas consider themselves Democrats or “Democrat-leaning.” But regardless of their political leanings, the result is that a great number of Texans feel that they aren’t represented in their own state.
Even within districts, our elections force us into a monolith. In 2020, Representative Ronny Jackson won the 13th District with 80% of the vote. Even I, who was a part of the 20% who did not vote for him, will agree that he’s the “winner” of that election based on our current electoral system.
But where does that leave the 20% of the people who did not vote for Jackson? Or the people who did not even bother to vote because they felt it was a “waste of time?” Don’t roughly 150,000 citizens of District 13 deserve to be heard and represented as well?
And that election was before city-dwellers in Denton were added to our district! The problem is only getting worse – year after year, new battle lines are drawn and the voices of those who think differently are further diminished.
And that’s exactly why I decided to join FairVote and help build on an incredible three decades of work. Because it’s not just about those in the Panhandle of Texas (and even Denton!) who are not Republicans. It’s also about the Republicans in Massachusetts who haven’t elected a Republican member of Congress in decades. It’s about the Californian who does not identify with any major party. Or the Alaskan who passionately supports an independent party candidate. We all deserve to have our voices heard and represented. It doesn’t mean that everything always goes perfectly our way – but it does mean that all voters will have a greater choice and a stronger voice when it comes to their democracy. And that’s why the Fair Representation Act (FRA) in Congress is so important. It gives our citizens, our democracy, a chance.
The FRA (HR 3863) is comprised of three components: ranked choice voting, multimember districts, and requirements for fair congressional redistricting. As Wegman pointed out, multimember districts can “more accurately capture the true shape of the electorate and let everyone’s voice be heard […] It’s no longer a zero-sum game that leaves out millions of Americans.” It doesn’t mean that the Panhandle of Texas would suddenly become a Democrat stronghold or that Seattle would become a Republican battleground. What it would mean is that more voters would have the opportunity to be heard and represented where they are living, working, and paying taxes. It would mean that those running for office would be incentivized to represent all of their constituents.
I want to be heard. To be represented. But I don’t want that to come at the cost of my neighbor becoming disenfranchised or disillusioned. My neighbor and I don’t need to agree on everything (except that 9:00PM is the official trombone playing cut-off time). But we do both deserve to be given what was promised to us as Americans in our Constitution – equitable representation.
The Fair Representation Act can help us get there.
Photo by Cristin Merker