Last week, the Texas legislature was brought to a halt by the flight of many of its Democratic members. Texan Charles Kuffner has been following the action. The fifty-odd Democrats holed up in Oklahoma, hanging out at a Denny’s just over the state border. This is great, farcical political theater, from Oklahoma state officials refusing to assist the Texas Rangers and Texas Department of Public Safety officials drag the "Killer D’s" back to Austin (the Texas Constitution gives the Legislature the power to compel attendance, following the lead of Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution) to use of federal law enforcement by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to find the Dems. The walkout — scheduled to end tonight, after Texas’ current legislative session ends — has the feel of an old-fashioned political donnybrook. It’s not a throwback just because the Texans fled; in 1979, the Texas State Senate was shut down by the "Killer Bees", Democratic Senators opposed to separating the state and presidential primaries. The group hid for five days in a garage, and their disappearance became a major media event in the state. Twice in twenty-five years certainly isn’t common, but this isn’t as rare as, say, beating rivals senseless on the Senate floor or serving in political office after being indicted for murder. What makes this seem like such an atavism isn’t the mere flight of the Democrats, nor is it fact that someone apparently implied that there had been a plane crash to convince the feds to lend a hand. It’s the nature of the redistricting fight.

Redrawing political boundaries to produce specific political results has a lengthy tradition in America. It happens after every census, and probably has since the end of the Era of Good Feelings. The Voting Rights Act’s somewhat muddled stance on the issue has led people to attempt to walk a fine line in the creation of majority-black districts. Redistricting has been crucial in the reshaping of states’ political characters. In nineteenth-century Tennessee, for instance, redistricting resulted in forty years of disproportional dominance by the middle of the state:

But in 1812 rapid population growth and congressional redistricting threw the advantage to Middle Tennessee. The subsequent political decline of East Tennessee, symbolized by the removal of the state capital from Knoxville to Nashville, was deep and painful. Between 1819 and 1860 only a single candidate from the eastern counties, Andrew Johnson, reached the governor’s chair, and after 1840 East Tennessee lost its claim to one Senate seat. Three defeats late in the antebellum period particularly embittered East Tennessee Whig leaders. In both 1851 and 1853 T. A. R. Nelson, one of East Tennessee’s most respected Whig leaders, was a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat, but both times the state legislature instead selected a Middle Tennessee candidate…. Whigs in East and West Tennessee frequently allied against Democratic Middle Tennessee, but representatives from the middle counties nonetheless tended to dominate the state legislature.

Generating the numbers for redistricting in the census is an enormously complicated affair. Even if both parties wanted to generate perfectly fair and equitable districts, there would be room for legitimate disagreement about what is fair and equitable. In the nineteenth century, however, parties have tended to use redistricting to create a systemic advantage for their reelection hopes. One could always start carving the districts up in a manner knock off members of the opposition party — combining two opponents’ districts into one, for example — or produce safe havens for one’s own party, by carving off widely separated pieces here and there and connecting them. One of the districts in the proposed plan that triggered the "Killer D’s" walkout was made up of two major population centers separated by a three-hundred mile strip of land only a few blocks wide. These kinds of district just look weird. But with some redistricting software (1 | 2), it’s relatively easy to put together an electoral map that does what you want, no matter how funny it works. And redistricting has been getting more partisan lately, as states where one party has won the "trifecta" — a governor and both legislative chambers from the same party — have been increasingly seeking favorable maps.

But these nakedly partisan moves can backfire. The current Texas Speaker of the House, Tom Craddick was once a member of the "Dirty Thirty", a bipartisan group of state legislators who teamed up to try to force an accounting over the Sharpstown influence peddling scandal. The immensely powerful Speaker Gus Mutscher, deeply embroiled in the scandal, responded by trying to gerrymander the Dirty Thirty out of existance. It failed spectacularly; Mutscher ended up convicted of securities violations, and over half of the Texas House failed to win reelection the following term.

And this sort of redistricting, held between censuses, is quite rare. Josh Marshall, with his newly minted Ph.D., claims that it hasn’t been done since the 1950s and that it was uncommon even then. That’s the real throwback; Tom DeLay is attempting to roll back to the nineteenth century practices of party politics. I shudder to think of what will happen if states start redrawing district boundaries every time a party wins the trifecta; Texas can completely outlaw the Democratic Party, and California can drive the Republicans into the sea. Hopefully, someone will take the lesson of Elbridge Gerry. Gerry, the Governor of Massachusetts, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the participants in the XYZ affair, supported a rather unconventional redistricting plan. Politcal cartoonist Elkanah Tisdale though that Gerry’s plan added a few details and drew a rather successful cartoon; Gerry’s redistricting attempts backfired, he was not reelected, and even though he served as vice-president under Madison for two years, the only reason anyone knows who he is today is because of Tisdale’s cartoon of the "gerrymander".