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With Texas legislators poised to redraw the state's political maps this year, many Texans have asked how to get involved in the complicated and contentious process that determines their political districts and representation for as long as 10 years.
While legislators wait for delayed census data to arrive, they’re gathering public input. Though the public’s suggestions for how to group districts don’t always impact how maps are drawn, records of that input can be pulled into the eventual court record to show whether a committee disregarded the public’s recommendations when there are concerns about the legality of maps.
“Public input can be really important in building a public record to help show that you’re discriminating against communities of color or that you’re drawing maps in other impermissible ways,” redistricting expert Michael Li, senior counsel at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, said in a past interview with The Texas Tribune. “So, public input is hugely important in building the record for potential litigation. It is sometimes less important in the actual drawing of the maps because the reality is that it’s a very political process and people start with political goals in mind, and those are oftentimes paramount.”
Given the state's ongoing demographic shifts and Texas' long history of voter suppression and legal battles, it would be unusual if, at the very least, some redistricting plans didn’t end up in federal court. Here’s a look at how you can get involved in the redistricting process and help contribute to drawing fair and equal districts.
Every 10 years, the Texas Legislature must use census data to redraw the state’s voting districts for its congressional, legislative and State Board of Education maps. Typically, redistricting is carried out during the regular legislative session, which starts in January and ends in May, once lawmakers receive detailed census results around mid-February.
But the pandemic and legal battles have delayed census counting, and the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that the detailed results lawmakers need probably won’t be available until at least two months after the 2021 session ends. That means lawmakers will probably be forced into a special session to carry out redistricting.
In the meantime, the Senate Redistricting Committee, led by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, is conducting regional hearings to gather public input throughout the month of February. For the first time, the hearings are being held over Zoom. In a normal year, legislative committees would hold these hearings in person in the months leading up to the redistricting session rather than during the session. Many of those hearings were canceled last year because of the pandemic, though advocates urged state leaders to find a new way to start them again.
During the Zoom hearings, all testimony is welcome regardless of the regional focus. The purpose of these hearings is to gather information about regions’ unique geographic, economic and demographic characteristics and other elements legislators should — and should not — consider from those most familiar with those areas. Upcoming hearings include:
Lawmakers have already held hearings for West Texas, South Texas, North Texas, Central Texas, East Texas, Brownsville/Harlingen/McAllen, San Antonio and Dallas/Fort Worth.
To testify, members of the public must register 24 hours in advance. To do this, select the hearing notice for the one you wish to attend from this list, then click the link under the “Witness Registration Instructions” section. There is also a link for those who want to watch the hearing without providing testimony. The House Redistricting Committee typically holds public input hearings as well, but has not announced any upcoming hearings after they began conducting them in September 2019 and halted when the pandemic hit.
Members of the public also typically have access to the map-drawing program used by lawmakers, RedAppl, so they can draw alternative maps for legislators’ consideration. In the past, people could access RedAppl through workstations in the Capitol. While specific procedures for accessing the Legislature's redistricting software this year are still under consideration, members of the public will be able to submit proposed district plans when the 2020 census data becomes available.
According to the state’s redistricting website, plans prepared on other free or commercially available software — like Maptitude, Public Mapping Project's District Builder, Esri Redistricting, Dave's Redistricting — are also acceptable in .txt or .csv formats for inclusion in DistrictViewer and RedAppl, where legislators, committees and the public can easily assess or modify them. The Legislature will publicize the procedures for electronic submission of plans prepared by the public, such as by email, when they’ve been finalized. In the meantime, the Senate Special Committee on Redistricting has a public input portal for written comments and attachments.
“If the people make it known that they care, then legislators may be more responsive,” Justin Levitt, a Loyola Marymount University professor who maintains the All About Redistricting website, said in a past interview with the Tribune. “If the people don’t make it known that they care, then the legislators may be less responsive.”