Federal judges proposed new political maps for the state late Thursday and hope to have new congressional and legislative maps in place for Texas on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
That’s the court-set date when candidates for the Texas House and Senate and for the state’s 36 congressional seats will officially start filing papers declaring their intentions. By the end of the day on Dec. 15, they’ll be done and the primary races will be underway. Less than two months later, more than half of those races will be over.
Really over. There’s another round of balloting in the general election in November, but if recent political history is your guide, you know that a large number of incumbents won’t draw serious opposition even in a redistricting year. They’ll effectively be elected when filing closes. And unless the judges do something shocking to the election recipes (as opposed to some limited surgery to make the maps legal), most of the political districts will remain toxic to candidates from one party or the other.
Most of the Republican districts — nearly two-thirds in the maps drawn by the Legislature — are configured to be nearly impossible for Democrats or Libertarians or anyone other than Republicans to win. It’s the same with the Democratic districts — there are just fewer of them.
The people who represent those districts will effectively be chosen in March, in the party primaries. The November election will hold some surprises. It always does. But the real decision-making in Texas politics increasingly happens in March. All of our statewide offices are occupied by Republicans; the Democrats haven’t won one of those races since 1994.
It’s one reason why redistricting, while dull, is important: The people who draw the maps, to a large extent, circumvent voters’ decisions by employing laws intended to protect voters from disenfranchisement.
Many of the not-so-many people who are watching redistricting think Democrats will gain some ground in the court maps. Their logic is simple: A Republican legislative supermajority drew the maps that the courts are revising, and changes will most likely go against the authors. It’s reasonable to guess that the Democrats will pick up some districts, or that more districts will become competitive.
Those lawyers, legislators and litigants are conflating race and party, taking advantage of laws that protect minorities to protect Democrats, and there’s reason to think it will work. Minority voters in Texas have generally favored Democrats over Republicans. If the courts increase the number of minority districts, they’ll be increasing the number of Democratic districts.
Republicans have won about all of the seats they can win, given the law and current voting patterns. Long term, they will have to start winning more minority votes in Texas to increase and fortify their numbers. Democrats have a different problem. Minority voter turnout is lower than Anglo voter turnout. The growth in the minority population in Texas — it accounted for 89 percent of the state’s growth over the last decade — isn’t reflected in the political numbers. It doesn’t matter how many minorities are in a district if they don’t vote.
The state’s 23rd Congressional District stretches from El Paso all the way east to San Antonio, and has become a battleground in the court fights. And this population vs. voting pattern is part of the argument. Attorneys for the state — defending the Legislature’s maps — contend it’s already a minority opportunity district where Hispanic citizens of voting age comprise 58.5 percent of the population. They have the power to elect the candidates of their choice, the state argues in a brief filed this week.
“To the extent Hispanic voters are not successful in doing so, this is only because of low voter cohesion and low voter turnout, neither of which the Legislature was required to account for when maintaining this overwhelmingly Hispanic district,” the state’s lawyers wrote.
One argument on the other side is that lawmakers intentionally packed that district with non-voting Hispanic precincts to inflate the population numbers while protecting the Republican incumbent, Representative Francisco “Quico” Canseco of San Antonio.
For the moment, the federal judges in San Antonio and Washington control how this election cycle will work. After that, the power in places like CD-23 transfers to a relatively small, self-appointed group of elites: Texans who vote in the party primaries.
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