Texas Politics

‘Keep us out of court.’ Public calls for transparency ahead of 2021 redistricting

In the first of dozens of House Redistricting Committee hearings that will crisscross the state, one Austin resident showed lawmakers a photo of her husband’s feet.

With two Adidas sneakers standing firm on the asphalt, the photo was representative of the larger concerns dozens of members of the public voiced Tuesday about political districts that slash through their communities, sometimes stretching hundreds of miles away.

“He’s standing in the middle of our street. His right foot is in the 10th district and his left is in the 17th. We don’t have the same U.S. representative as our neighbors across the street,” Robyn Honig, a resident of Austin, said of the photo. “Do the three congressional districts shattering my neighborhood keep with the spirit of a representative democracy or were they drawn in the spirit of something else?”

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Robyn Honig

Honig wasn’t the only one with complaints, as lawmakers heard testimony for over four hours from Texans who spoke out against gerrymandering and called for fair maps, transparency and an independent redistricting committee.

State lawmakers will be tasked with the highly political process of drawing U.S. House and Texas House and Senate districts next legislative session, using population data from the 2020 census to shape them.

The census will also affect Electoral College votes, which are based on each state’s count of House and Senate seats.

After census day on April 1, 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau is mandated to send counts to the president and Congress by December 2020. And after that, the bureau will send results to states by March 31, 2021 — a little more than halfway through Texas’ legislative session.

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and chair of the committee, said the hope is for Texas-specific data to be sent to the state around late February or early March of 2021.

Lawmakers will be on a time crunch, with March 12, 2021, the last day for bills to be filed before the session ends in May.

“It gives us a very small window to go through a very difficult process,” King said.

Because of the state’s growth, Texas stands to gain up to three more congressional seats, while some states such as California and Minnesota have the potential to lose one, Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter said.

“We’re currently set to be the big winner in terms of seats, because we’re growing more than any other state so far this year,” Potter said.

According to data presented by the Texas Demographic Center, Tarrant County is among the top 10 Texas counties projected to have gained the most people between 2010 and 2020.

Ranked fourth, Tarrant County is estimated to have gained approximately 334,721 people over that time period.

The county’s growth is mostly due to an increase in minority populations, similar to demographic shifts across the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

And in 2022, Texas Hispanics are predicted to become the state’s largest population group, according to the Texas Demographic Center’s population projection tool.

Texas has a long history of violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racially discriminatory voting practices.

In 2017, federal judges ordered that Texas House districts, including some in Tarrant County, be redrawn because lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities in shaping them.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering is not an issue for federal courts to weigh in on, but it was one on the mind of some testifying Tuesday.

“Keep us out of court,” Daphne Tenorio, a Kyle city council member, said to lawmakers.

Public’s concerns

Throughout the hearing, the public asked for one measure again and again: an independent, nonpartisan redistricting committee.

It’s a proposal a growing number of states are adopting that ranges from state auditors choosing members based on applications to members being chosen at random. In Texas, efforts to establish one failed this past session, with many bills that would have done so failing to make it out of committee.

“But they were all given a hearing,” King said.

But members of the public who came to testify still stressed the need for one.

“Gerrymandering is not fair. Period,” Bill King said, pointing to when it’s used to give an unfair advantage to political parties or incumbents. “Having a partisan legislature draw election districts lets the politicians pick their voters. That is not democracy.”

In addition to an independent commission, calls were raised for the process to remain as transparent as possible. Lawmakers were urged to allow the public to review proposed maps before they’re finalized, in addition to allowing the public to propose their own.

“The stakes are high,” said Matt Simpson, the ACLU of Texas’ deputy political director. “Texas cannot and should not engage in racial gerrymandering.”

Some raised concerns about a new law authored by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, that allows lawmakers to keep a broad swath of communication, like emails, confidential.

Stephanie Swanson, who spoke on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Texas and its Austin chapter, called for incumbents to refrain from drawing their own districts. Swanson also asked that lawmakers’ communication related to the process be preserved and that a report be issued explaining how maps were drawn.

Lawmakers will be able to use a software named Red Apple that will allow them to draft maps and securely share them, said Karen White, the director of research for the Texas Legislative Council, a nonpartisan agency that aids lawmakers in analyzing and drafting legislation.

In the past, White said there has also been ways for the public to submit their own redistricting proposals to legislators through the software.

“The way it’s going to be handled this year has not been determined,” White said.

King said there are currently 28 more hearings scheduled across the state, with the potential to add even more. The committee will be holding a public hearing in Fort Worth at 4 p.m. on Oct. 9 at the Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus.

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.