In the eyes of the federal courts, it probably doesn’t matter — for electoral purposes — that the political lines in Fort Worth’s 90th Texas House District are discriminatory.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled almost entirely in favor of the state of Texas in a challenge to the political maps drawn for congressional and state House seats, with one exception, saying HD-90 is the one district where racial discrimination via redistricting crossed the legal lines. They sent the case back to lower federal judges for whatever nips and tucks their ruling requires.
In turn, that lower court — three judges working out of San Antonio — last week asked the horde of redistricting lawyers to say by next month how each would make repairs.
But those three judges also said that the maps now in place — including that illegal design in Tarrant County — will be used for this year’s elections. “Regardless of what is decided for HD-90, all the maps for the 2018 elections will remain the same as for 2016.”
To summarize: It's wrong. Voters in one part of the state were — and are now — being discriminated against. Don’t worry about it, though — just proceed as planned.
From a partisan standpoint, it doesn’t matter. It’s a Democratic district whether the courts “remedy” it or not. State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, is the current occupant, and a redraw would be unlikely to turn it red. The primaries are behind us now, and this latest ruling means there won’t be a re-do of those elections. It’s impossible to say, then, whether a differently drawn HD-90 would have prompted new people to run, possibly with a different result in the Democratic primary that effectively chooses who will represent more than 160,000 Texans in their state Legislature.
This is one of 11 Texas House districts in Tarrant County and one of only three represented by a Democrat. None of these are easy flips — the kinds of districts where a talented mapmaker could change the partisan outcome with an eraser and a creative squiggle. In each of these House districts, the prevailing party’s statewide candidates won in 2014 and in 2016 by 15 percentage points or more.
Romero’s district abuts one other Democratic district and three Republican districts; you’d have to be awfully creative to get another Democratic district out of the revisions the courts will eventually demand.
Even if HD-90 was a swing district and the mapmakers had bent it for purely partisan reasons, that’s not against the law. The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether political maps can be so tilted in one party’s favor that voters are cheated, but that remains an open question. Partisan gerrymandering is still a viable legal strategy, at least in the courts.
But racial gerrymandering is not. And it doesn’t matter who gets elected as a result; the legal test is whether the voters were cheated out of their voting power on the basis of race. In this case, in this district, in this court, the answer was yes.
But the decision was to proceed with the election anyway.
The Texas redistricting fight has a complicated history. After the 2010 census, lawmakers in 2011 drew new maps for legislative, congressional and State Board of Education districts and immediately were sued by groups that said the maps were unfair and, in many instances, discriminatory. Federal judges changed some of the lines for temporary use and told lawmakers to try again, but those lawmakers made some small tweaks and adopted the court’s maps as their own. The litigation continued, with those maps in use, until the case went to the Supremes, who ruled last month.
What that means, in practical terms, is that the state was using contested maps in three election cycles — 2012, 2014 and 2016 — and will continue using a map that officially discriminates against some voters in and around Fort Worth in a fourth one.
How you feel about that probably depends on your political affiliation, but with the exception of that HD-90 problem, it means the state’s maps — hard as they might be on Democrats — met court muster. And even in that district, the judges said, Republican lawmakers were trying to accommodate objections that the Latino population in that district was underrepresented.
Politically, it’s a wash. But it means, if you’d like to be picky about it, that the Tarrant County voters who were shuffled for racial reasons — illegally, according to the court — will, by November, have been disenfranchised in four elections in a row.
Maybe the 2020 election — the last one before another decade’s redistricting fights gears up — will be a big one for those folks. It would have to be, to make up for the other four.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune