Redistricting – A View From Inside the Process

Redistricting – A View From Inside the Process

150 150 Jim Murphy

Every ten years we are required to redraw our political boundaries. Following the census, cities, counties, school districts all draw their own lines. In the State Legislature, we draw the State House and Senate district maps plus those for the State Board of Education and our US Congressmen and Congresswomen.

Much fanfare has been made about the growth in Texas that has added four new congressional seats (and four electoral votes) and the challenge of drawing these new districts. Compared to what we do at the State level, this is a relatively painless (although complicated) process. Each of our 32 current US representatives will be able to keep their seats. It is much easier to shrink a number of districts to add a seat than to expand a district to capture population. And that is simply because, as we grow one district, it starts to take in territory from the adjacent district. Not only might the current officeholder like that area (and vice versa) but he or she might be short of population and not want to give up any areas. As the kids say “it’s complicated.”

Our population growth since 2000 has not been uniform. Urban areas have shrunk slightly, suburban areas have grown significantly, exurban areas (the next ring out — think Waller, Conroe, and Tomball) have grown steadily, and rural Texas has lost population. Districts in West and North Texas will be expanding to encompass a sufficient population. And if that puts two members in the same seat (aka “pairing”) it will get interesting.

The same shift is occurring in Harris County. Overall, we will keep 24 or 25 of our current 25 seats. But our growth has been north and west so districts east and south are well under the required population (as much as 20,000 short of the 170,000 needed). As each one moves into the neighboring district, the next one moves a little more, and the next even a bit further. As the district closest to the high growth area in West Harris County, it looks like I will have a lot of new territory to accommodate the needs of my colleagues to the east.

There are a few rules to guide us in this process which is just getting started and very dynamic. The redistricting committee is asking that counties with multiple districts provide a map agreed to within the County. This does not mean that the committee will approve it automatically but it is a good start. The committee has also asked regional areas like South and West Texas, where districts include multiple counties, to meet and submit plans for their regions. Provided with these inputs, the committee will develop a composite and start seeking support from members. Once sufficient support is in place, the map will be brought to the floor for revision and/or approval. My understanding is that the Senate largely draws its lines, the House draws House lines and they collaborate on the congressional map. You can see proposed maps on this website- www.tlc.state.tx.us/redist/redist.html

Another law governing us is the Federal Voting Rights Act. In summary, it is intended to ensure that districts are drawn fairly and that minority voters have opportunities to elect their preferred candidates. Even though Anglos are no longer a majority, they are not protected. The minority protections are for African American and Latino districts and voters. Once our state plan is complete, we will submit it to the Department of Justice who will hopefully approve the Texas map. If that does not happen, we will be asked to revise it, lawsuits might factor in, and then our plan could become a court battle.

It is way beyond my pay grade to speculate on all this but bear this schedule in mind. If filing deadlines are January 1st, and open on December 1, there are just six months from when we adjourn to when the new map is being used. So all this will unfold quickly. We have 45 days left.

We are working on a number of major issues here but with its ability to impact elections for the next ten years, redistricting is starting to get a lot of our attention. By working hard in the next few weeks, we hope to avoid special sessions and any costly and time consuming court battles. And we’ll do that by adopting districts that work best for voters, and hope the politics take care of themselves.