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How Did Texas End Up With Such Screwy Political Districts?

Drawing boundaries that benefit the party that drew them – Republicans do it these days in Texas, though Democrats did when they were in charge – tends to make some oddly-shaped boundaries. (Shutterstock)

This year, all 36 of Texas’ congressional representatives are up for re-election, but only one of those races is considered by most observers to actually be competitive. When it comes to state house and senate races, the vast majority of those aren’t terribly competitive either. That’s due, in large part, to a lot of the districts in the state are drawn with an overwhelming majority of one party or another.

“It is always true in sports and in politics that the rules are going to affect the way the game is played. And that is not any less true in redistricting,” said Rebecca Deen, who chairs the political science department at UT Arlington.

Drawing boundaries that benefit the party that drew them – Republicans do it these days in Texas, though Democrats did when they were in charge – tends to make some oddly-shaped boundaries.

That’s what prompted Austin resident Tim Campbell to submit his question for TXDecides, our statewide public radio collaborative that's answering Texas voters' questions ahead of Election Day. He was flummoxed when he realized he’d ended up in a district that stretches from central Austin, where he lives, all the way to Fort Worth’s southern suburbs.

“How have Texas district lines been drawn?” Campbell asked. “And what’s the political and policy fallout from how these lines have been drawn and redrawn?”

On its face, how the lines get drawn seems like an easy question. The Texas constitution is clear: after each census, the legislature creates maps for state and congressional legislative districts, and the governor signs off.

In reality, it’s never that simple. New maps usually launch legal battles.

Legally, districts have to be compact, contiguous, and contain an equal population. In Texas, they’re supposed to conform to existing boundaries, like county lines, when possible. The Voting Rights Act said districts can’t be drawn to reduce the voting power of communities of color.

Lawmakers can, however, draw districts in a way that makes them more winnable for their political party, and they do it with gusto, Deen says.

“Political parties want to draw the lines so that they are more likely to keep power, and to keep their opposition from getting power,” Deen said.

With more state legislatures now controlled by Republicans, Democrats are now launching an effort to focus on redistricting reform ahead of the next census and inevitable new maps.

How Texas’ Lines Got Drawn

In Texas, after the last census, the Republican-dominated state legislature started drawing new maps. State Sen. Kel Seliger chaired his chamber’s redistricting committee. In 2011, Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith asked Seliger whether the process should be de-politicized.

“Well, take the calories out of fried chicken too,” he joked.

While he said it’s not possible to be entirely non-political, Selliger said he wanted the redistricting process he was overseeing to be bipartisan.

“We’re trying to do it as any other bill in the Senate is going to require votes from Republicans and Democrats,” Selliger said.

Half a decade later — after years of legal wrangling — Democratic Congressman Marc Veasey said the maps drawn by the Republican-led Texas legislature fell short.

“It was really meant and designed to discriminate against black and Hispanic voters, and maximize republican seats,” Veasey said.

Veasey said that’s why Tim Campbell ended up living in a district that confused him.

“You have districts that split Travis County up into five seats, where you have districts that run from Fort Worth to Austin,” he said, which splits up liberals in Austin and adds in enough conservative voters from suburban and rural areas to outweigh the liberals in the district.

The term of art is “cracking.” The other strategy is called “packing,” in which lines are drawn to cede over a district to the other party, and pack in every possible voter in that party by removing them from surrounding districts. Veasey’s 33rd congressional district falls into that category.

Political scientist Rebecca Deen said, when it comes to voting rights, it’s not simple to separate legal partisan gerrymandering from illegal racial gerrymandering, and that’s been the crux of a legal battle that’s lasted since the maps were introduced in 2011.

Breaking up Democratic voting blocs without diluting the voting power of communities of color is hard because voters of color tend to skew Democratic, Deen said.

“If your goal is to disempower Democrats, what you do is end up manipulating how you draw the lines, the boundary lines, either around or through where African Americans and Latinos live,” Deen said.

The 2011 maps were quickly challenged in court for violating the Voting Rights Act. A federal court drew new maps, which Texas challenged. That kicked it up to the US Supreme Court, which ordered the federal court to revise the maps again. In 2014, the state house district map was revised for a third time. Those are the maps we’re voting with In November, even though the lawsuits continue.

Lydia Camarillo, heads the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, one of the groups involved in the lawsuits, and she said the revised maps are better, but still disadvantage Latinos.

“This is the best we can do given what we’ve got,” she said.

Why District Lines Matter

Camarillo said the 2010 census showed huge growth in the state’s Latino population – two-thirds of the 4.3 million new Texans — and it’s not right the new maps didn’t reflect that.

“Not only were they working to dilute the vote of Latinos and other communities but they were intentionally drawing the maps to dilute our political influence,” Camarillo said.

As for the consequences of how the lines get drawn – that was the second part of question-asker Tim Campbell’s question — Camarillo said having fewer minority majority districts means fewer representatives of color in congress because majority white districts rarely elect non-white legislators. Just 15 of 318 majority-white districts are represented by people of color.

Camarillo said that often means community priorities end up on the back burner.

“It’s not that you’re electing someone that looks like you, it is about a candidate who cares about the interest of those that are electing them,” Camarillo said. “In the case of the Latino community, the Latino community cares about a number of issues, education, jobs, bringing resources to the community so there is a better life for the children of that community.”

Congressman Marc Veasey said safer seats make politicians more partisan and cause Washington gridlock.

“If we had more seats that were competitive in the state and around the country, then I think people would be a lot more pleased with what they get from congress,” Veasey said.

That lack of competition, according to political scientists, dampens voter turnout. And Texas? It regularly has some of the lowest turnout in the country.

- Christopher Connelly, KERA. This story originally appeared here.