Explainer: Redistricting and Gerrymandering in Texas

Texas has become ground zero for gerrymandering in recent years

Texas State Capitol
NBC 5 News

One of the goals of the voting rights reform bill, recently passed by House Democrats and facing a uphill battle in the Senate, is to end gerrymandering. It is the practice of state legislatures manipulating the boundaries of district maps in ways that favor one party or racial group. 

An increasing number of states have employed independent commissions to draw district lines, but the majority of states still lack proper safeguards to prevent partisan favoritism, also known as partisan gerrymandering, which tends to happen when incumbent politicians hold the authority to redraw district maps. 

Texas has become ground zero for gerrymandering in recent years. When 2020 census results come out in spring, the Texas Legislature will meet to take on the process of redistricting. Like before, conflicts and contentions are expected to occur. 

Here’s what you need to know about the process of redistricting, Texas’ practice of gerrymandering, and what you can expect to happen with redistricting in 2021.

What is Redistricting

Every 10 years, the U.S. conducts a census to survey where the nation’s residents live. States can then refer to the census data to update their legislative maps. 

There are two parts of the redistricting process. One is legislative redistricting, where lawmakers draw the state house and senate boundaries. The other is redistricting for U.S. Congress and the State Board of Education. People care most about congressional redistricting, since it shapes the communities’ ability to elect individuals who can best represent their interests and concerns.

Since the 2010 cycle of redistricting, unfairly drawn congressional districts in the nation have shifted, on average, 59 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in three elections, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. This is significant, because it means that every other year, 59 public officials might have been elected not because of statewide support but because the lines were drawn in their favor. Another report published in 2020 by the University of Maryland found that since 2000, nearly 40 House seats have shifted to favor Republicans due to gerrymandering.

In Texas, where Republicans have controlled a majority in both chambers of the State Legislature for nearly two decades, voting rights advocates often accuse district maps of being discriminatory towards voters of color. For this reason, maps drawn for redistricting are often challenged in courts.

Practice of Gerrymandering in Texas

Since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was designed to combat racial discrimination in the voting process, Texas has been found in violation of the act every decade. 

The current gerrymandered districts have their origin from 2003, when Rep. Tom DeLay led an unprecedented effort to redraw the state’s congressional districts. Since then, Republicans have been controlling the Texas House, Senate, and governor’s office.

Most recently, the 2011 redistricting plans were rejected by the federal government. From 2000 to 2010, the Texas population grew by four million people, 90% of whom were Black and Hispanic residents. However, the new maps in 2010 did not create a single district for the Black and Hispanic minorities. After the courts ruled the 2011 maps were drawn with discriminatory intent, lawmakers in Texas adopted a map provided by the courts, made with minor alterations to the original plans.

The federal supervision of state redistricting is called preclearance. It places a check on the practice of partisan gerrymandering. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court pushed aside claims that Texan lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color, and eliminated the preclearance law in state, granting it uncurbed power to pass redistricting plans. 

Without H.R.1, What to Expect in Texas in the Upcoming Redistricting

With the preclearance procedure gone, Texan lawmakers will be able to pass redistricting plans and new voting laws without federal scrutiny. 

This year, Texas may gain as many as three congressional seats, up from the current 36 seats. The gain stems from its impressive population growth. Since a decade ago, the state has experienced a population increase of close to four million. A majority of them are Hispanic, narrowing the gap between Hispanic and white populations.

However, given the history of practicing partisan gerrymandering and a Republican-controlled state legislature, Texan lawmakers are likely to draw the final maps in favor of Republicans, which may potentially play a role in helping the Republicans take back the House in 2022.

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