Redistricting Reality

In politics, the crayon is mightier than the ballot. A political mapmaker can do more to change the power structure than a herd of consultants with fat bank accounts behind them. And 2011 will be the Year of the Mapmakers.

They'll take the new census numbers — Texas is expected to have a population of more than 25 million — and use them to draw new congressional and legislative districts for the state. The last time this was done, in 2003, Republican mappers took control of the U.S. House by peeling away enough seats from the Democrats to give the GOP the numbers it needed for a majority.

Now, Texas is poised to add up to four seats to its congressional delegation. And early numbers indicate political bad news ahead for West Texas and other areas that haven't kept up with the state's phenomenal growth.

"The mistake is to ask, 'Where will they go?'" says Matt Angle, a Texas Democratic consultant based in Washington. "What's really important in Texas is who." He says the Anglo population has grown (according to early estimates) by about 3 percent, while the Hispanic population is up 50 percent over the decade, and the black population is up 21 percent. "If the whole state was growing at the rate of the Anglo population, we would only get one seat."

Republicans agree with some of that. Republican consultant Craig Murphy, who like Angle is a veteran of several redistricting bouts, has the same answer as to geography. "'Where' is a misnomer," he says, noting that mapmakers can put new seats wherever they please — not just in the high-growth areas — and adjust the rest of the state to make them fit.

The official numbers won't be available for a year — after all, people are only now getting the census forms that'll be used to produce the actual count. But the government does projections each year, and that's a place to start.

Polidata, a Vermont-based politics and demographics research firm, building on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, projects Texas will turn out to have grown 20.6 percent over the decade and could get up to four new seats in Congress.  They've got 10 states each losing a seat or two and eight states gaining, with a total of 11 seats moving to the winners from the losers. Other outfits, like the National Center for an Effective Congress (with the Democrats) and the Republican National Committee, estimate the same gain: four for Texas.

Texas would be by far the biggest gainer; each of the other winners — Washington, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina — would gain one seat.

That would bring the size of the state's congressional delegation to 36, but it wouldn't necessarily mean everybody who's there now gets to stay. The growth hasn't been evenly spread throughout the state. Some areas gained population, some lost population, and some just didn't grow as fast as others.

Draw a line from Wichita Falls on the North to Del Rio on the state's southern border: Most of what's to the left of that line — except for El Paso — is expected to fall well behind the growth of the rest of the state. Not all of that region has lost population; it just hasn't kept up with growth in South Texas and in the major metropolitan areas (especially the suburbs). And that area is likely to suffer political losses when new maps are drawn.

The gained congressional seats might mean West Texas can hang onto the members of Congress it's got now. "They don't have to beat Dallas — they have to beat Ohio, or Philadelphia," Murphy says. But in the state House and Senate — where the number of seats is fixed at 150 and 31, respectively — the region to the west of that Wichita Falls-Del Rio line is likely to lose seats. Just how many, and where, won't be clear for a year, when the numbers come out. But it's already an issue in at least one legislative race. And it's certainly a concern where community leaders meet in towns and cities throughout that part of the state. "That's where West Texas gets hurt," he says.

Creative cartography can help.

"Texas is the perfect shape for malleability," Murphy says. "Perfect is a circle, and we're close." A state like California is harder to gerrymander, since you can't grab people from the north and put them in the same districts as people in the south. Texas, on the other hand, has enormous districts that stretch from San Antonio to El Paso, from Eldorado to Pampa, from Matador to Gainesville, from Seguin to Pharr, from Mentone to Burnet.

"We've done the most extreme things of any state," he says. "Drawing seats the other party can't win — we've been very good at that. It's partly our geography … and high population growth gives us lots of options."

The state agency at the center of this — the Texas Legislative Council — has beefed up the redistricting section of its website. They include detailed maps of the estimated growth in Texas by county and congressional district, among other things.

The timeline for drawing the new maps isn't long, although the litigation that always follows can last for years. The Legislature convenes in January of next year, and mapmakers will have the preliminary numbers from the census and the official decision on how many seats the state is getting in Congress within a few days of that start. The population data used to fill out the maps, however, won't be final until April 2011, leaving only two months to draw maps for Congress, the state Legislature and the State Board of Education.

If the Legislature doesn't get the job done — that's the historical norm — the congressional maps go to federal court, and the legislative maps would be drawn by the Legislative Redistricting Board. That five-member panel includes the lieutenant governor, the House speaker, the attorney general, the land commissioner and the comptroller. The panel is currently 100 percent Republican, but the Democrats are taking a crack at four of those incumbents.

"The most important thing to bring fairness to the maps is to win the state House," Angle says. "… What gets missed is to look at the treatment of minority votes. It's whether or not African-Americans and Hispanics are in districts where their voices can be heard."

Republicans say the new seats in the congressional delegation will likely be split between Republicans and Hispanics. Not that Hispanics are a political party; the GOP would like to draw Hispanic seats they can win. Democrats say the new seats should go to the fastest growing parts of the population: Hispanics and blacks. In particular, they think African Americans in Tarrant County should already have a district drawn for them.   

"The only group of residents decreasing as an overall percentage of voters is Anglos," Angle says.

All of Texas' new maps have to be cleared by the Justice Department — this will mark the first time that's done under a Democratic administration in Washington — and they always end up in court. Filing for the elections starts in December 2011, so the elapsed time from start to end — from the delivery of the first actual census numbers to the Legislature, to the LRB, to the Justice Department, to the courts and to the elections under the new maps — is about a year.

A Texas House committee started its work last month, hearing from the census about the process ahead. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will soon name a Senate committee to hold public hearings and begin the preliminary work that can be done before the numbers are here.

Murphy says it's easier to make big changes when one party has a clear upper hand in the legislative process — something that won't become clear until after the November elections. 

"When you see dramatic changes, it's not the slow movement of demographics," he says. "It's because one party is strongly in control.

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