AUSTIN, Texas - At the Texas Capitol Tuesday, lawmakers are getting down to business on redrawing the state’s Congressional districts. The process is especially important given the state’s explosive population growth over the past decade.
The Senate’s Special Committee on Redistricting is holding a hearing Tuesday at noon to get feedback from Texans about what’s happening in their communities. That public testimony will be taken virtually, via Zoom.
This process is, of course, tied to the 2020 census, which was delayed due to the pandemic. It showed that Texas gained the most residents of any state, with fast growth in cities like Austin helping our state gain two more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The state’s population is up by four million since 2010, with people of color accounting for 95% of that growth. The past 10 years especially saw major growth in Hispanic communities.
How the Congressional lines are drawn will have a major impact on how these shifting populations are represented, particularly given the two brand new districts. With so much at stake, experts say redistricting promises to be no less contentious than so many of the other issues that have played out under the Pink Dome this year.
"That's the political context in which all of this is taking place. It's the same political context that's served as the backdrop for the voting disputes and also the abortion dispute and a critical race theory and all else. Politics is at the core of this because the redistricting has a definite impact upon who is represented in Austin and what party establishes its own policies with regard to particular issues. So absolutely, there's a political backdrop to this entire scenario that really is going to make it just as volatile as the other issues," said Dr. Eddy Carder, a constitutional law professor at Prairie View A&M University.
Although these hearings are getting under way, the U.S. Census Bureau has still yet to deliver its final redistricting data to the states. That is set to happen on September 30th.
While legislative committees will begin their work to draw the Congressional maps, they have to be approved by the full Texas House and Senate. In order for that to happen, Gov. Greg Abbott must call a third special session—which he has not yet done.
A potential snag in this process: a lawsuit filed by two Democratic State Senators last week. In the suit, Sens. Sarah Eckhardt of Austin and Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio argue the legislature does not have the authority to redraw these maps during a special session as opposed to a regular session. They want a federal district court in Austin to handle redistricting instead.
"Well, first of all, it tells us this is going to be a contentious issue like all other issues in the state legislature. The second thing it tells us is the two Democrats that have brought the lawsuit are asserting that it's inappropriate for the redistricting process to take place in a special called session," said Carder. "The Governor's argument is that this has to be addressed in a special session because of the unique circumstances related to the pandemic, which delayed the provision of the census data to the states."
There are looming concerns about whether the redistricting process will be fair. Federal judges have ruled that in 2011 lawmakers discriminated against minorities in how they drew the Congressional map—by intentionally diluting the power of Black and Hispanic votes. And because of the wildly booming population in the past decade, there are some concerns about whether actual populations in each redrawn district will be equal, in order to conform to the 14th Amendment’s "one person, one vote" principle.
One thing that is clear: this process needs to be completed well before the 2022 election, which is a little more than a year away.