Keeping Austin Weird

Often referred to as ‘the live music capitol of the world,’ Austin, Texas is a town that has a lot to be proud of. In addition to its vibrant music scene, Austin is home to multiple premier Universities, an up-and-coming tech industry, and an active rodeo circuit. While there are many factors that draw people from across the country to relocate to Austin, there’s a pretty big factor that keeps many more out. Chances are that if you live in Austin, Texas, your ability to partake in the democratic process may be illusory.

Travis County, the county that houses Austin, is home to six separate Congressional districts. Five of them are currently represented by Republicans congresspersons, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of county residents support the Democrats during presidential election cycles. Going back the last 20 years, the average margin of victory for Democratic Presidential candidates in Austin is roughly 13 percent, a historically high number. In comparison, for the 2012 election cycle President Obama enjoyed a margin of victory of 3.8 percentage points.

Although many believe that political gerrymandering is the root cause of this paradox of representation, many believe the issue is one of more nuance. “The whole point of political gerrymandering is to reduce as much as possible the opportunities for effective representations of political minorities,” Sanford Levinson, a Harvard Law School Professor who maintains a home in Austin, Texas, argued. “I underline political minorities because I think it’s true that say Tom Delay – there’s no reason to think he’s a racist, what he realized is that most blacks were democrats and so he was out to minimize the democratic vote. I have no doubt that if blacks were republican he would have been delighted to be more generous.“

For Levinson, a large part of the problem can’t be evaluated without addressing certain structural deficiencies in the federal Constitution. “I don’t like the constitution. I don’t like the constitution because I think it has generated an ultimately at best only marginally legitimate government and at worst illegitimate government. I like the current Senate, but I think the senate as an institution is preposterous. I loathe the current house but it is true now that the house is not really meant to represent the fabled medium voter that both sides try to carve it up in successful gerrymanders.”

The evolution of the legal doctrine on voting rights was disturbing to many long before the Shelby county case that the Supreme Court decided earlier this year. From Giles v. Harris, where the HLS alum and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes held that the Supreme Court was powerless to assist disenfranchised blacks in Alabama, to the aforementioned Shelby County vs. Holder case, the U.S. Supreme Court has had much difficulty in protecting the rights of historically disenfranchised groups to partake in the political process. That said, for many individuals concerned with the integrity of our political process, gerrymandering is only part of the problem. “My own gripe is that the United States is one of the only systems of the world that relies exclusively on single member geographic based districts. I think it’s a mistake to view gerrymandering per se as the root of all evil. I have come to the view that the real problem is our exclusive reliance on single member districts and I would like to see a much more imaginative system of representation so that for example I would require every state with six representatives or more to elect representatives in multi-member districts of at least three people and to elect them on a proportional representative basis.”

“I think that would go a long way toward eliminating gerrymandering,” Levinson continued. “In Texas what I would envision is that you’d have six districts of a mixture of five or six members of congress and this means that in a six person district you are guaranteed the ability to elect one person you like if you can get approximately 15 percent of the vote. It’s just the way the math works. Among other things this would do in the 2 party system.”

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