EDITORIAL: Gerrymandered House districts shortchange voters

November 3, 2016

With the national race tightening between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, here’s an ironic point for Texans to consider: That drama and uncertainty is not matched in the 36 Texas races for U.S. House of Representatives districts.

How many are competitive? Half? A third? The answer is even worse: Just one.

The only contest in which either a Democrat or a Republican has a fair chance to win is the battle for the 23rd District, which stretches along the border with Mexico from near El Paso to south of San Antonio. Incumbent Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, is running against former Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. Even that race has a familiar echo, since these two candidates ran against each other two years ago.

But compared to the other 35 U.S. House races in Texas, it’s a model of democracy. In those 35, the incumbent Democrat or Republican either has no competition at all or a little-known, poorly funded challenger with no real chance of winning.

This didn’t happen by accident. The culprit is usually gerrymandering, the quaint practice of drawing district boundaries so that one party has little chance of winning and the other is virtually assured of an easy victory.

Both parties do it. But it’s not just an affront to voters, who should be able to expect some form of fair competition for important offices like the U.S. House of Representatives. The process also drives both parties to the far right or left.

When an open seat does come up after a longtime incumbent has retired, the real contest is the party primary since the winner will face no threat in the general election in November.

That usually favors the reddest Republican or bluest Democrat. When those highly partisan winners get to Washington, they are less inclined to compromise with the other party or any serious legislation.

That’s why we see bickering and gridlock instead of action, like a better health care plan or tax reform that discourages companies from relocating their headquarters overseas.

Some states have created bipartisan redistricting panels to draw fair boundaries after every census. If that happened in Texas in the 2021 legislative session, we wouldn’t have 35 out of 36 House elections that have been decided long before the polls close.