One of the most important things on the agenda of the 87th Texas Legislature is the drawing of new congressional districts, but a combination of politics and the difficulty conducting the Census last year is likely to turn an already hectic chore into pure chaos.
Every ten years the United States conducts the Census to track the population, and districts are redrawn to reflect the current population. This is especially meaningful in Texas because the state is expected to gain new seats in congress to account for its population growth. With the current Democratic majority in the House of Representatives being on a razor-thin margin, control of the chamber could very well rest on who wins these new seats in 2022.
However, it’s likely we won’t have the results of the Census until far later than usual and almost certainly not until after the end of the 87th Texas Legislature. That means that a special session will be necessary to do the redistricting, and it will need to be processed quickly because Texas has a very early deadline to file to run for office in 2022. Candidates have to have their paperwork submitted by December 13, and with open seats to fill that gives the legislature only a few months to work out the problem.
Of course, a major concern with redistricting is how fairly the lines will be drawn. Activist groups are already prepared for the possibility that the Republican-led Legislature will fail to accurately represent the population demographics of the state.
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), is hoping to work with the Legislature before it comes to court, but he is decidedly not optimistic.
“There will be litigation,” he says. “The Texas Legislature does this every decade, and every decade we’ve had to go to the courts. Luckily, it has made a difference in changing the outcomes.”
MALDEF previously had to enter the courts over the redistricting in 2010. Latinos accounted for more than 60 percent of new population growth in the state. Combined with increased African American numbers in the state, it would seem that the new seats that were created should be in minority-majority neighborhoods.
That is not what happened, but MALDEF triumphed in Texas federal court in 2012 thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Perez v. Perry. The win created two additional Latino opportunity districts in the congressional map and one additional Latino opportunity seat in the state house map.
“If the population growth comes from the Latino community, then districts should reflect that,” says Saenz. “Republicans don’t see that to their benefit, so they don’t draw them that way.”
MALDEF’s San Antonio office is already in constant communication with the Legislature, and they hope to head off any attempts to disenfranchise the state’s Latino voters before it comes to that. However, with so many political futures hanging in the balance it’s very unlikely that Texas Republicans will not take the opportunity to draw the lines to benefit themselves, even at the expense of minorities who are responsible for those seats existing.
“The track record is not good. If history is any predictor, I can’t be optimistic,” says Saenz. “Unfortunately, Texas politics is as partisan as ever on these issues. The state is divided. In my view, we have poor leadership in [Governor Greg] Abbott and [Attorney General Ken] Paxton, and that doesn’t help. Redistricting should involve the community, and any Texans should express their views to their representatives so they are represented fairly. The problem is that there is a high, high, high degree of self-interest. It determines the future.”
With a Supreme Court that now has six conservative justices, three of whom were appointed by Donald Trump, it might be bleak prospects for future court challenges. However, this is one of the few areas that Saenz feels voter rights advocates will have an advantage. He points out that previous challenges were heard by conservative courts in the past two decades, and they sided with the rights of minority voters.
“The Voting Rights Act is pretty clear in this,” he says. “This is not new law. Conservative courts have done the right thing before.”