AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas Democrats filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday challenging existing legislative district maps and Republican Governor Greg Abbott's plan to call a special session to address redistricting.
Democratic state Senators Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio and Sarah Eckhardt of Austin, along with Mexican American voter advocacy organization Tejano Democrats, are asking the court to draw interim legislative maps before the 2022 election cycle.
In their 10-page complaint filed in Austin federal court, the plaintiffs claim the current legislative district maps violate the 14 Amendment by infringing on its “one person, one vote" principle through malapportioned, overpopulated districts.
With new census data in hand, lawmakers are tasked with redrawing legislative districts to make them properly apportioned. Abbott and Republican legislators are planning to tackle redistricting during a fall special session. But the Democrats argue that is unconstitutional.
"The Legislature’s first valid opportunity to apportion state House and state Senate legislative districts commences ‘at its first regular session after the publication of each United States decennial census,'" the complaint states. "The census was not published before or during the 87th regular session in 2021; thus, the Legislature’s first opportunity for apportionment is not until the 88th regular session in 2023."
Because census data was not available to lawmakers until August, Abbott's longstanding plan was to call a fall special session for redistricting, following two special summer sessions on issues such as voting, abortion, border security and critical race theory in schools.
According to Wednesday's lawsuit, redistricting can be done during a special session but not before the issue gets addressed during a full regular session. The Texas Legislature meets every other year, so the next regular session is in 2023.
However, with the 2022 midterm elections approaching, new maps must be drawn to account for Texas’ two new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Democrats argue the “court has the exclusive obligation to create interim maps” between now and the 2023 regular session.
The debate over redistricting has been looming since the census count began last year. With the population of Texas becoming less white and more urban, Democrats in the Lone Star State see an opportunity to take back control of a legislative chamber or win statewide office for the first time in decades.
Gutierrez, the Democratic state senator from San Antonio, suggested in a statement announcing the lawsuit that Republicans are trying to retain their hold on the state by drawing maps that favor them. He said Abbott, a former Texas attorney general, is " deliberately ignoring the law in a desperate, illegal scheme to try to keep his party in power."
Over the past decade, 4 million people moved to Texas, a 15% increase since 2010, leading to the two new seats in Congress. Population growth was driven by an influx of many people of color, especially Hispanics and Latinos. With nonwhite people being the group driving the increase, many have begun calling for those new seats to represent that community.
But Texas’ urban population also saw significant growth, raising debate over whether the new seats should represent urban communities of color that largely vote Democratic, rural communities that are more white and Republican, or a mix of both in the suburbs.
Since the 1980s, Texas legislative maps have been fought over in court on claims that the maps were racially gerrymandered to weaken the voting strength of minorities. Many of those maps were found to have violated the Voting Rights Act, and with voting rights being a contentious topic in the state already, Democratic lawmakers have accused Republicans of a concerted effort to unfairly solidify power.
Manuel Medina, chair of the Tejano Democrats, said in a statement, "The governor and Republicans may be able to force through racist voter suppression provisions…, but the law clearly states that they cannot illegally redistrict in order to do so.”
The lawsuit comes a day after the Texas Legislature passed voting restrictions that standardize elections in the state. Civil and voting rights groups across the state have argued the bill will make it harder for voters of color and those with disabilities to cast ballots.
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