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In Politics, Size Doesn't Always Matter

Redistricting can change the odds in legislative and congressional races, but in statewide races, it's all about turnout.

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Redistricting can’t solve every voting problem.

Look at El Paso County. Then look at Collin County.

As the sixth and seventh most-populous counties in Texas, they are roughly the same size. In the latest census, El Paso had 800,647 residents to Collin’s 782,341.

They have about the same number of adult residents — 559,834 in El Paso and 557,664 in Collin.

But when it comes to politics, the numbers are anything but equal. Effort trumps population.

Registered voters? Collin: 424,672; El Paso: 379,727. Keep in mind, that’s with voting age populations of about the same size. Actual voter turnout in the 2010 elections? Collin: 156,668; El Paso: 88,505.

In Collin County, Republican Rick Perry beat Democrat Bill White by 48,469 votes in the November 2010 race for governor, with 64.1 percent. White won handily in El Paso, with 61.3 percent. But his win there didn’t match Perry’s in Collin County because the turnout was much lower. White beat Perry by 21,711 votes — less than half what he needed to offset the Republican’s victory in North Texas. (Neither county was a particularly good mirror of the state. Perry got 55 percent to White’s 42.3 percent statewide.)

The counties are the same size when it comes to people, but on Election Day, Collin County is 77 percent bigger. In politics, that’s how you measure clout.

The voting numbers offer a quick answer to anyone who wants to know why gubernatorial candidates spend more time in places like Collin County than in places like El Paso County. White got almost as many votes getting squashed in Collin — 51,890 — as he did while squashing Perry in El Paso — 54,247. If people voted in proportion to their populations, places like El Paso would get more attention from the political class. They don’t, though: If this was a sport, El Paso would be a benchwarmer, watching the first-stringers — the people who put some real effort into the game.

It used to work like that at the local level, too, before voting rights laws and lawsuits changed the rules. Voters in heavily populated counties like Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and El Paso used to vote at large for legislators. That is, a county might have several lawmakers, but the same voters chose all of them. The people sent to Austin and Washington to run things were often elected by active business and civic groups in which minorities and some communities didn’t have any power. They didn’t get single-member districts in state elections — with only one legislator for each set of voters — until the mid-1970s.

You can't fiddle with the map of the state to even things out, however, and the results of statewide contests — like the governor, attorney general and United States senators — have more to do with the effort exerted by candidates and voters and organizers. Redistricting doesn't directly affect those contests; Collin trumps El Paso, for instance. And there’s only one way to fix it.

“Steady progress in registration and voting,” said Nina Perales, director of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We haven’t closed the gap. I see disparities in registration and voting as very closely tied to a history in Texas in which many minorities were excluded from voting up into the 1970s.”

The legal groundwork was laid with all of the voting rights law. Now there’s the historical-behavior obstacle. El Paso’s Hispanic population is 658,134. Collin’s is 115,354. One group historically votes and the other doesn’t.

“You’re less likely to register and vote if your parents didn’t register and vote,” Perales said. “It’s not like Mexican-Americans and African-Americans have always had an equal opportunity to register and vote. We overcame official barriers fairly recently and are now working to raise the participation rates of our communities.”

Single-member districts profoundly changed the legislative game in Texas. State representatives or senators or members of Congress have the same power in office no matter how many people vote to send them there.

It turns out that giving this group or that one a chance to elect someone in a district can and has actually put them in position to have a voice in Austin and in Washington. But a good map isn’t a cure for every political ill; it can’t get people the kind of statewide clout some of them covet.

That requires effort.

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Politics State government Redistricting Texas Legislature