HOUSTON (CN) — It's a custom as quintessentially Texas as brisket barbecue and trips to the Alamo: Every 10 years its lawmakers draw new legislative maps, then the state is sued on claims of illegal gerrymandering. The current round will be no different, though delayed census data has opened the door for increased public input.
Adding an estimated 4.3 million residents since 2010, the most of any state, Texas is expected to gain three congressional seats, up to 39, in this census cycle.
Most of that growth was in the cities of Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio and their suburbs, which means legislative districts in those areas will have to shrink, while districts in rural areas of the state that lost population will expand to equalize the number of constituents in each district.
Texas is already a majority-minority state and its Latino population is on track to surpass the number of white people either this year or the next, according to state demographer Lloyd Potter of the Texas Demographic Center.
But the population boom is also being driven by Blacks and Asians. "If you add all minority populations together, they account for 84% of the population change [in Texas since 2010]," Potter said at a recent Texas Senate redistricting committee meeting.
So why are the majority of state legislators in such a diverse state older, white Republicans, given minorities typically vote for Democrats?
Critics of the current system say the reason is clear: Because members of the Republican majority have more say in how the Legislature draws its district maps, they can draw them in a way that favors them staying in office.
Testifying before the Texas Senate redistricting committee last week from their living rooms and homes offices via Zoom, numerous Texans complained, in tones ranging from pleasantry to sanctimony, that the process allows lawmakers to pick their voters, instead of the other way around.
And they lobbied for establishment of an independent commission to take over lawmakers’ redistricting duties, while urging them not to waste taxpayer dollars by drawing maps that provoke costly legal challenges.
"The same computers that draw safe districts for both parties can draw competitive healthy districts," Patsy Ledbetter, a Democrat who lost an election for a Texas House seat in November, told the Senate committee on Jan. 27.
"And I'm really curious, does anybody ever come before you and plead for you to gerrymander? I just hope you will establish a nonpartisan commission, like several states have done, that will restore civility in our politics," she added.
No matter which way Texas lawmakers draw the maps, experts say they are going to wind up in court.
It took until 2018 for the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve legal battles over maps the Legislature drew in 2011, and were redrawn twice by a panel of federal judges in 2012.
"Texas maps have ended up in court every decade for five decades," said Michael Li, a senior counsel and redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice. "And this decade is not going to be any different. There are going to be various sorts of shenanigans and there will be legal challenges. Texas has struggled to get it right for its Black and Latino citizens for five decades."
He said incumbents now have a lot of incentive to put their thumbs on the scale because of the demographic change.
"The growing nonwhite population is threatening the political status quo in Texas and people will try to use map drawing as a way to tamp that down," he said in a phone interview.
Though the Texas Senate Redistricting Committee held public hearings all last week and has more scheduled throughout February, the state House of Representatives has yet to select members of its own redistricting committee and there's no need to rush.
Due to delays caused by the pandemic in the decennial population count used to determine how many congressional representatives each state gets, the U.S. Census Bureau said the earliest it will send Texas this reapportionment data is March 6.
The Census Bureau still has not said when it will send Texas a "redistricting data file," with detailed info about residents needed to start drawing the maps.
Potter, the state demographer, said lawmakers will have to be called back to the state capitol in Austin by the governor for a special session either in late summer or fall to draw the maps after the regular session ends May 31.
The Legislature convenes every other year for a regular session of up to 140 days.
Li said the Texas maps are typically finished before November in preparation for the next election cycle.
People declare their candidacy in November and December for the March primaries, and the state has to print absentee ballots by mid-January to meet its statutory deadline of mailing them 45 days before the primaries.
But those dates are not set in stone as the governor or courts could delay the filing deadline or primaries if the mapmaking process goes late into the year.
So far, a common demand from Texans in the public hearings is this: After you draw the maps, let the public weigh in and change them based on that input.
Li said the Legislature does not have to wait for the final census numbers to start drawing maps, as the Census Bureau also generates population estimates yearly in its American Community Survey.
"They can release a set of tentative maps. They won't have exact data to draw the maps. But you can get maps that are roughly what you want to do and get comments on that. They could do that now. They could do that in the summer," Li said.
"So there's plenty of time for public comment in a meaningful fashion on the maps," he added.
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