May 14, 2021

2021 Texas redistricting starts with less oversight, transparency concerns

With vital U.S. Census Bureau data delayed until September at the earliest, the once-in-a decade redrawing of Texas political maps is already off to a rocky start — all while Texans have been increasingly vocal in demands for increased public access to mapmaking, a process that’s historically been closed to the public.

Since January, Texans have signed up in droves to testify virtually in regional hearings held by the Senate’s Special Committee on Redistricting. A single hearing in March had over a hundred witnesses, ranging from high school students to retirees and spanning every major demographic group in the state.

“I want to see what maps you draw before you vote, since they so seriously affect how well I’m represented,” said Karen Collins, an Austin resident, during a regional Senate hearing on March 13. “Show me your maps.”

The stakes are high for Republicans who will lead the process, with Democrats more competitive in Texas. GOP victories in 2020 elections also give the party more say in drafting two new congressional districts added to Texas because of rapid growth since the last census.

But Texas lawmakers, found by federal judges to have purposely discriminated against Black and Latino Texans a decade ago, won’t have as much oversight this time. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling means the new maps will be the first in four decades that will not be subject to federal preclearance rules meant to safeguard against discrimination.

Throughout regional hearings, chaired by Republican State Senator Joan Huffman, Republicans have kept mostly quiet as they’ve listened to citizens and advocates call for transparency, including the right to comment on maps while they’re still being drawn.

“I’m committed to a fair, transparent and legal process … We have a great deal of work ahead,” said Huffman, who is from Houston, at the first regional hearing in January. Huffman’s office did not respond to recent requests for comment; nor did any other Republican member of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

As the House Redistricting Committee now takes up its own set of hearings in Texas, Democrats in Washington are pushing legislation that aims, in part, to put redistricting in the hands of independent commissions. The omnibus voting rights and election reform bill H.R. 1, or the “For the People Act,” has been hailed by civil rights activists as a major step towards ending partisan gerrymandering — the strategic redrawing of the maps based on voting data to ensure victories for one party.

Though the legislation faces heavy opposition in the U.S. Senate, if it passed, it would have major consequences for Texas’ redistricting process, which is currently overseen by the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Texas Republicans call it an illegal power grab by Democrats in Washington. Attorney General Ken Paxton joined 19 other Republican attorneys general in a letter rebuking H.R. 1. They enumerated their concerns with the bill, including fears that comprehensive reform would “commandeer state resources, confuse and muddle elections procedures, and erode faith in our elections and systems of governance.”

Special session, less scrutiny

Delays Delays in Census Bureau data could also have major consequences for public access to redistricting decisions. In February, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University warned that Texas maps, which will be drawn in the fall during a special session, will have even fewer procedural protections and less oversight this time.

Outside of the regional hearings, legislators have been privately discussing the needs of their own districts and ensuring population numbers are correct. Members and their staffers also get internal training on sophisticated software that holds demographic and geographic data, said State Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Democrat from Grand Prairie.

Anchía, who is the Chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and a member of the House Redistricting Committee, has for years unsuccessfully filed bills to create an independent commission that would oversee Texas mapmaking, along with other efforts to boost transparency.

The need for redistricting that is not politically motivated is clear, Anchia said, pointing to his own Texas House District 103. That district had been drawn to pack in Hispanic voters with the intent of electing Republicans in nearby House District 105, he said.

“Voters are rightly skeptical of this process,” Anchía said. “In addition to this lack of transparency, it creates a cynicism of government because people feel like it’s rigged going in.”

Calls for transparency include a push for consistent public hearings on maps even after Census Bureau data comes in.

Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of the nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause Texas, said interested citizens need more time to analyze maps and changes to those maps as they make their way through the Legislature.

The lack of opportunity for public review has “presented the possibility that some legislator came up with some devious plan behind closed doors and can introduce it and get it through at the last minute,” Gutierrez said. “And that’s not how that’s supposed to work.”

What goes into those maps is also under scrutiny. Both Democratic and Republican parties have voter files of partisan data, including datasets like voting history and everything on a basic voter registration form, Gutierrez said.

Where it gets complex, he said, is every other piece of information used to create maps. Legislative staffers and consultants most likely use economic and basic demographic information from American Community Surveys and the U.S. Census Bureau. They also likely source consumer data from corporate entities, social media data and even magazine subscriptions, Gutierrez said.

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