Eric Gay, STF / AP With vital U.S. Census Bureau data delayed until September at the earliest, the once-in-a decade redrawing of Texas political maps is already off to a rocky start — all while Texans have been increasingly vocal in demands for increased public access to mapmaking, a […]
With vital U.S. Census Bureau data delayed until September at the earliest, the once-in-a decade redrawing of Texas political maps is already off to a rocky start — all while Texans have been increasingly vocal in demands for increased public access to mapmaking, a process that’s historically been closed to the public.
Since January, Texans have signed up in droves to testify virtually in regional hearings held by the Senate’s Special Committee on Redistricting. A single hearing in March had over a hundred witnesses, ranging from high school students to retirees and spanning every major demographic group in the state.
“I want to see what maps you draw before you vote, since they so seriously affect how well I’m represented,” said Karen Collins, an Austin resident, during a regional Senate hearing on March 13. “Show me your maps.”
The stakes are high for Republicans who will lead the process, with Democrats more competitive in Texas. GOP victories in 2020 elections also give the party more say in drafting two new congressional districts added to Texas because of rapid growth since the last census.
But Texas lawmakers, found by federal judges to have purposely discriminated against Black and Latino Texans a decade ago, won’t have as much oversight this time. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling means the new maps will be the first in four decades that will not be subject to federal preclearance rules meant to safeguard against discrimination.
Throughout regional hearings, chaired by Republican State Senator Joan Huffman, Republicans have kept mostly quiet as they’ve listened to citizens and advocates call for transparency, including the right to comment on maps while they’re still being drawn.
“I’m committed to a fair, transparent and legal process ... We have a great deal of work ahead,” said Huffman, who is from Houston, at the first regional hearing in January. Huffman’s office did not respond to recent requests for comment; nor did any other Republican member of the Senate Redistricting Committee.
As the House Redistricting Committee now takes up its own set of hearings in Texas, Democrats in Washington are pushing legislation that aims, in part, to put redistricting in the hands of independent commissions. The omnibus voting rights and election reform bill H.R. 1, or the “For the People Act,” has been hailed by civil rights activists as a major step towards ending partisan gerrymandering — the strategic redrawing of the maps based on voting data to ensure victories for one party.
Though the legislation faces heavy opposition in the U.S. Senate, if it passed, it would have major consequences for Texas’ redistricting process, which is currently overseen by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Texas Republicans call it an illegal power grab by Democrats in Washington. Attorney General Ken Paxton joined 19 other Republican attorneys general in a letter rebuking H.R. 1. They enumerated their concerns with the bill, including fears that comprehensive reform would “commandeer state resources, confuse and muddle elections procedures, and erode faith in our elections and systems of governance.”
Special session, less scrutiny
Delays Delays in Census Bureau data could also have major consequences for public access to redistricting decisions. In February, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University warned that Texas maps, which will be drawn in the fall during a special session, will have even fewer procedural protections and less oversight this time.
Outside of the regional hearings, legislators have been privately discussing the needs of their own districts and ensuring population numbers are correct. Members and their staffers also get internal training on sophisticated software that holds demographic and geographic data, said State Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Democrat from Grand Prairie.
Anchía, who is the Chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and a member of the House Redistricting Committee, has for years unsuccessfully filed bills to create an independent commission that would oversee Texas mapmaking, along with other efforts to boost transparency.
The need for redistricting that is not politically motivated is clear, Anchia said, pointing to his own Texas House District 103. That district had been drawn to pack in Hispanic voters with the intent of electing Republicans in nearby House District 105, he said.
“Voters are rightly skeptical of this process,” Anchía said. “In addition to this lack of transparency, it creates a cynicism of government because people feel like it's rigged going in.”
Calls for transparency include a push for consistent public hearings on maps even after Census Bureau data comes in.
Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of the nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause Texas, said interested citizens need more time to analyze maps and changes to those maps as they make their way through the Legislature.
The lack of opportunity for public review has “presented the possibility that some legislator came up with some devious plan behind closed doors and can introduce it and get it through at the last minute,” Gutierrez said. “And that's not how that's supposed to work.”
What goes into those maps is also under scrutiny. Both Democratic and Republican parties have voter files of partisan data, including datasets like voting history and everything on a basic voter registration form, Gutierrez said.
Where it gets complex, he said, is every other piece of information used to create maps. Legislative staffers and consultants most likely use economic and basic demographic information from American Community Surveys and the U.S. Census Bureau. They also likely source consumer data from corporate entities, social media data and even magazine subscriptions, Gutierrez said.
“This is the kind of thing where we want to know - ‘What pieces of data did you put into generating this map?’” Gutierrez said.
‘We don’t trust the process’
Sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, H.R.1 would require all states to turn over mapmaking authority to an independent citizen-led commission, which would stipulate that members be selected from both major political parties and unaffiliated with any public office.
It details a host of other requirements intended to prevent backroom mapmaking: for example, public hearings would have to be held and public comments taken into consideration before approving any state’s final maps. It would also require bipartisan support for the final maps.
Yet some of the measures detailed in H.R. 1 already exist in Texas at the local level. For example, the city of Austin taps 14 members from a pool of qualified citizens to serve on the commission, which is designed to be demographically representative of the entire city. Everyone on the commission is independent of the city council and the mayor.
In other parts of the state, local officials are trying to replicate Austin’s process. David Stout, a Democrat and county commissioner for El Paso County, has pushed a local bill that would turn mapmaking responsibility over to an independent commission as well.
During Senate committee hearings at the start of the session, testimony has been by turns frustrated and pleading, with the vast majority of witnesses asking legislators to put integrity before politics.
Marla Lopez, a coordinator at the civic engagement organization Mi Familia Vota, signed up to testify at a January Senate hearing. For the average person, the legislative jargon that accompanies redistricting is too cryptic to understand, Lopez said. But she said the one thing she’s heard from the dozens of people she’s spoken to during community organization work is that they want to know what’s going on behind the scenes.
“One of the points that I really wanted to make to them was that the community does not trust the Legislature,” Lopez said. “We don't trust our elected officials, and we don't trust the process.
“It's like a secret ritual we don't know about that affects every part of our lives.”