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When the Lone Star State defied polls and stayed solidly red on election night, dejected Texas Democrats saw the next 10 years flash before their eyes.
In a few months, the Texas Legislature will begin the dramatic, gut-wrenching wonk-fest known as redistricting — the decennial redrawing of district lines for the state’s elected officials in Congress, the state Capitol and the State Board of Education to create roughly equally populated districts to match the population growth after the 2020 census.
And because Republicans in the state House and Senate held onto their 20-year majority, they are positioned to further entrench their power until the next redistricting rolls around in 2031. Their majority also extends to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which draws the maps when the Legislature can’t agree on them.
“After the results on Tuesday, Republicans are in the driver’s seat when it comes to redistricting,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “The specter of having a narrow one or two-seat [Democratic] majority which might have changed redistricting dynamics did not come to pass, and therefore we are likely to be looking at a very partisan redistricting in 2021.”
GOP lawmakers at the helm of the process can carve out meaningful political advantages for elections to come — splitting up Democratic areas, grouping more conservative voters into weakening Republican districts, and manipulating the lines of Congressional districts in order to send more GOP representatives to Congress.
Democrat U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s district was largely based in liberal Austin until the 2003 congressional redistricting in which his district was redrawn to stretch to the Texas-Mexico border and thereafter referred to as the “fajita strip” after its odd gerrymandered shape. The move effectively grouped Democrats in Austin with those hours away and allowed Republicans to strengthen their majority in Congress, with new seats in the Austin suburbs and nearby areas.
The cost of Republican entrenchment has been, according to recent court findings, the repeated disenfranchisement of voters of color as the GOP-led Texas lawmakers drew maps that diluted their voting strength.
Staring down more than 10 years of battle ahead, Democrats this election season saw redistricting as the single most urgent motivator to flip the statehouse.
“That was the big lost opportunity — a House-drawn map that reflected the true population trends that had been happening,” state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin said earlier this month during a panel hosted by the LBJ Library Future Forum.
Up for review this legislative session are 150 Texas House districts, 31 Texas Senate districts, and likely 38 or 39 U.S. House districts. That’s up from 36 seats, after census estimates showed a statewide population increase of close to 4 million since 2010, the last time the maps were redrawn.
Destabilizing the entire process is the uncertainty about whether the official 2020 census data, which state Rep. Phil King, chair of the GOP House Redistricting Committee, said must come before the maps are even drafted, will be ready in time for lawmakers to deal with them during the regular session. With the process delayed by the pandemic over the summer, U.S. census officials have said the department is working to get them to states by the statutory deadline of April 1.
The new maps are expected to hand at least a few safe years to the state’s GOP ruling majority, which will use the opportunity to shore up seats that have gotten more competitive with population growth and, in some cases, potentially add new ones.
Republicans acknowledge missteps in the 2011 redistricting process that backfired years later in Dallas County, where lawmakers failed to shore up vulnerable GOP seats in favor of adding new ones. The GOP wound up losing all but two seats in that county in 2018.
That election was “a huge wake-up call” for Republicans to work hard to maintain their majority in 2020, said state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and a member of the House Redistricting Committee.
“We said, if we don’t get our act together, things are going to go very differently next cycle,” he said during the LBJ panel.
In redistricting, lawmakers are not only fighting for voters’ rights and fair representation — but also for their own political survival. In 2011, for example, the East Texas district of GOP state Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton was paired with fellow Republican Rep. James White, who defeated Hamilton in a divisive and bitter primary the following year.
“If you have to give up part of your district because you’ve grown too much, that’s a good thing — except sometimes you have to give up something you don’t want to,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “It’s the most personal thing you can do … the entire time you spend in the Legislature.”
King, R-Weatherford, said the process has always been ripe for conflict due to competing interests — such as balancing powers among rural, urban and suburban areas and being careful not to divide up school districts and cities, among other battlegrounds.
“It’ll be high drama, and high drama and then high drama,” said Geren, one of the few state representatives who has experience with the issue going into the new session.
Increasing the pressure are groups outside the chamber that will push lawmakers to draw hard political lines, something Geren experienced as a freshman when conservative lobby groups threatened him with primary opponents when he didn’t sign a pledge supporting their favored maps.
This session is likely to be no different.
Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West is already pushing for Republicans in charge to refrain from compromising with Democrats altogether.
“It is critical that the progressive socialist left has no influence and impact on our redistricting process,” he said in an email.
Looking to the courts
Most assume that any maps the Texas Legislature comes up with will head to the courts, with Democrats likely to charge racial discrimination in the way they were drawn.
But this time, the challenge would face a federal court system reshaped by appointees of President Donald Trump and, potentially, a Supreme Court with a 6-3 conservative majority.
The 2021 redistricting cycle will mark the first time in nearly half a century that Texas lawmakers will be able to implement new legislative and congressional districts without first proving they don’t undercut the electoral power of voters of color.
Texas is a repeat offender in this regard. In every decade since the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, federal courts have found that state lawmakers have disenfranchised voters when drawing up their maps.
Like several other states with histories of discriminating against Black and brown voters, Texas was required for decades to obtain federal approval of any changes to its elections, including its periodic adjustments to political boundaries to account for population growth.
But when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013, it freed Texas from that supervision.
In recent redistricting efforts, that safeguard gave Democrats some legal muscle to fight against new maps that stripped the electoral strength from voters of color, who tend to lean left.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said Democratic control of the White House could result in an attorney general willing to put the weight of the federal government behind fighting discrimination in redistricting.
He also said he’s hopeful that if Democrats seize control of the U.S. Senate — which will be decided by January runoff elections in Georgia — that could help reinstate the Voting Rights Act’s oversight of Texas’ redistricting maps. The census delay could buy some time to tilt these scales in Democrats’ favor, Hinojosa said.
“A lot can happen between now and when they get to redistricting,” Hinojosa said. “Anything can happen, and we hope that it will.”
Democrats said they hope the state’s changing demographics, with more younger voters of color and more new residents coming in from Democratic-leaning states, will force Republicans to draw maps that more closely reflect the politics of the population.
“You can only do so much,” Israel said. “The numbers are real. We are a very diverse state. It’s a beautifully diverse state, and, you know, you have to apportion, you have to be equal, you have to be fair.”
Incredible growth in areas like Tarrant County will be tempting for the GOP, which may want to add to its majority as opposed to protecting its incumbents from future turnover to Democrats, Jones said.
Hinojosa points to trends of movement from urban areas and out-of-state residents from the liberal East and West coasts moving into the suburbs as an example of ways previously reliable red districts are no longer shoo-ins for Republicans.
In last week’s elections, Democrats narrowed the gap with Republicans in five of the most competitive and populous suburban counties in Texas.
State Senate districts will have to assemble some 950,000 people per district, and state House districts will have nearly 200,000.
Population shifts mean that some 77% of Texans live between Interstate 35 and Interstate 45, said King, a veteran of the process after more than 20 years in the chamber. That could make for some difficulties when trying to bring together cohesive, legal districts on the outside of that geographic triangle.
“How fairly can you represent someone if they’re 250 or 300 miles from where you live? So you’ve got some real geographic challenges that other states don’t have because of where our population is,” he said.
But King said his panel is committed to drawing legal maps that don’t violate the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, no matter who challenges the parameters.
“The Voting Rights Act says that you will not discriminate against a group based on language or race, so that applies to everybody. It applies to whites, Blacks, Hispanics, everybody,” he said.
Redistricting was the tipping point in the 2002 Republican takeover of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years.
The conservative maps that were passed in 2001 led to a bloodbath for Democrats in the following elections, allowing Republicans to wrest control of the House and install Republican Tom Craddick in the speaker’s chair.
With a ruthless partisan hand, Craddick and the new conservative House rammed through Republican priorities and led a Congressional midterm redistricting effort in 2003 that caused Democrats to flee to Oklahoma and New Mexico to break quorum and block the new maps. The Republicans won. For years, frustrated Democrats railed against Craddick’s authoritarian tactics but could do little to stop the GOP’s long-awaited agenda.
Craddick was eventually replaced, but the next round of maps protected Republicans for another decade, if only barely, in spite of demographics favorable to Democrats, Hinojosa said.
“People are saying, ‘Why were you not able to flip the House this time around?’” he said. “And my response to them is that we didn’t flip the House because those districts did what they were designed to do. They were gerrymandered in a way that is very difficult for us to overcome that.”
Disclosure: Rice University and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, Dec. 1, 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the host of a panel featuring Texas lawmakers. The panel was hosted by the LBJ Library Future Forum, not the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.