As they devised political maps to maximize their hold on power for another decade, Texas Republicans laid the foundation for a crucial argument they may need in defending their handiwork against multiple legal challenges claiming they are discriminating against Texans of color.
Their pursuit of partisan advantage produced new districts giving white Republican voters even greater say in deciding who represents Texans in Congress and the Legislature. Despite overwhelming population growth among people of color in the state, the power of voters of color is actually diminished when measured by their ability to meaningfully affect elections.
But persistently — often with a whiff of umbrage — Republican lawmakers insisted throughout the just-ended special legislative session that they were not intentionally marginalizing Hispanic, Black and Asian voters in a rapidly changing Texas.
“I’ve stated it, and I’ll state it again — we drew these maps race blind,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who led the redistricting process in the Senate, said at one public hearing. “We have not looked at any racial data as we drew these maps, and to this day I have not looked at any racial data.”
Huffman’s choice of words cut to the quick of the frustration shared by the legion of civil rights activists, lawyers, local leaders and organizers who have labored for decades against Texas political structures that exclude their communities.
Behind the maps and partisan wrangling, redistricting is about people, and their ability to elect representatives who carry their voices into the halls of power.
To communities of color, “race blind” translates as politically invisible.
“It’s very difficult to try to convince Texans that they are truly and fairly represented in a map where our voice has been silenced, where our voting strength has been diminished. You can’t say you represent us if you don’t see us,” said Valerie Street, the president of Our Vote Texas, a grassroots organization focused on voter education. “If we’re not there, then the questions we have [is] where is the avenue for us to get our needs met? How do we face the challenges in the places of Texas we all call home if our voting power is taken from us?”
The 2020 census offered an official portrait of the multiracial society Texas has become — one in which the Hispanic and white populations are virtually equal. Of the roughly 4 million residents the state gained since 2010, 95% were people of color. Just shy of half were Hispanic.
Yet the maps for Congress and the Texas House will shrink the number of districts in which eligible Hispanic and Black voters can realistically sway election outcomes.
In some areas where voters of color were gaining political ground, Republican map-drawers elaborately manipulated lines to create district boundaries diluting their influence. None of the maps offer Hispanic voters new opportunities to turn their growing numbers into political power. It’s unclear, given Huffman’s assertion that she didn’t consider race, if Republicans even tried to create them.
And although white population growth in Texas is relatively stagnant, white voters will largely determine who fills the two new Congressional seats the state gained by virtue of its overall growth.
“I think the story of Texas is really a story of the lengths that the Legislature is going to to try to maintain a status quo that is increasingly disconnected from the reality of what the state is and how the state looks,” said Yurij Rudensky, who serves as a redistricting counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. “The thing is it really just kind of shakes the very foundation of the system of government that this country was founded on, which is one that places people as the source of power.”
Throughout the redistricting sprint, the people of Texas were limited in their ability to weigh in on the new maps. Some public hearings were held just days after new maps were revealed. Others came with just 24-hour notice. In committees and on the House and Senate floors, the fate of the GOP proposals often appeared to be predetermined, set to advance even before the public had been heard.
Redistricting is flesh and blood, not a numbers game, said Michelle Tremillo, the co-executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that helps Black and Latino communities build political power. In designing maps that “lock out” voters of color, lawmakers deny them advocates in government, she said.
“It’s just such a blatant partisan power grab that has the impact of stifling democracy,” Tremillo said. “We’re all very well versed in ‘95% of the growth in our state was among people of color,’ but these are real human beings living real lives. The issues that we care about are not what is getting prioritized by our government.”
But the racially “blind” construct will be crucial as Republicans defend their maps in court. One lawsuit has already been filed, and more are expected, raising various claims that the new districts unfairly and illegally discriminate against voters of color.
In the courtrooms where these cases land, federal judges will look at the new maps and see:
- Voters of color in an existing, diverse North Texas state Senate district are chopped up into at least three districts. The political coalition they had formed with white voters would be torn asunder, with some Black and Hispanic voters in urban areas of south Fort Worth dropped into a district dominated by white voters in more rural counties that run south and west.
- Hispanic and Asian voters in suburban areas of the Dallas-Fort Worth region are siphoned into sprawling congressional districts in which they will have less of a political voice. The massive districts reach far into rural communities to give the district a large white majority.
- Black and Hispanic residents around one of the nation’s largest military installations in Killeen, in Central Texas, are segregated from one another through a doughnut-like configuration that cuts a hole in their community.
For Republicans to argue these outcomes are acceptable because the process was “race blind” is at best disingenuous and at worst insulting, said Texans who pleaded with them for equity.
“Color blind has two meanings — one that decisions are made without racial bias. These maps have obviously been made with racial bias,” Elisa Gonzalez, a retired educator from Corpus Christi, told lawmakers at one public hearing. “However, this committee is also color blind in terms of being deliberately blind to citizens of color by making maps that silence their impact.”
As their numbers expand, the stakes have not been higher for voters of color in recent history. This year marks the first time in nearly half a century that the Legislature is drawing new political districts without federal oversight, known as preclearance, that prevented states with discriminatory track records like Texas from enacting new voting rules or maps without first getting federal approval to ensure they did not pull back on representation for voters of color.
But as they advanced their proposals, Republican lawmakers rebuffed calls from groups with long histories of fighting the state in court for fair maps.
Now the fight shifts to the federal courts, which will be left to decipher whether Republicans crossed the legal line between partisan gamesmanship and unconstitutional discrimination.
Federal courts are generally reluctant to second-guess the motivations of Legislatures in redrawing state maps. Political gerrymandering, even in extreme instances, has traditionally not been enough to land lawmakers in legal trouble.
But in Texas it’s particularly challenging to unravel race and politics, blurring the line between political discrimination and racial discrimination.
In the first lawsuit filed against the maps, a coalition of Latino voters and grassroots organizations alleges the state discriminated against them by “making improper and excessive use of race,” in some cases for partisan advantage.
They point to the new configuration of a congressional district anchored in the Rio Grande Valley that was redrawn to offer Republicans a more competitive edge in an area where Latinos tend to support Democrats. This was accomplished, the plaintiffs argue, by intentionally packing Latino voters into a neighboring Democratic district, and manipulating precincts into and out of the district based on race.
The courts previously admonished the state for employing a similar tactic in the last redistricting cycle. Accused of reviving the approach this year, lawmakers cannot argue they are not intentionally using race — even if for partisan purposes, said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“They had a bad idea and got caught and were held liable for intentional discrimination, so somebody decided let’s do it again,” said Perales, who is representing the Latino plaintiffs after successfully challenging the state’s maps last cycle.
Lawmakers are generally not allowed to draw districts predominantly on the basis of race, and they are prohibited from drafting maps that discriminate against voters of color by diluting the power of their votes. Decade after decade, Texas has repeatedly run afoul of those protections for voters of color.
But the federal Voting Rights Act can require them to sketch boundaries based on race under certain circumstances, namely to protect or create “opportunity districts” in which voters of color make up a majority of the electorate and can usually elect their preferred candidate.
Despite deliberately ignoring race in her drafting, which did not result in any new opportunity districts, Huffman has said she later presented her proposals to legal counsel who cleared them as compliant with federal law. She has repeatedly declined to disclose how they reached that conclusion, though.
On the House side, the new boundaries for the chamber’s 150 districts are the result of mapmaking that appears to consider race too crudely.
The map first proposed by state Rep. Todd Hunter, the Corpus Christi Republican in charge of House redistricting, reduced the number of majority-Hispanic and majority-Black districts based on estimates of eligible voters — the legal standard used by the courts to examine “opportunity districts.”
Acknowledging those drops, Hunter said that standard was “respected.” Although he said the “reductions were unavoidable” in some instances, he insisted those districts would remain under the control of voters of color.
“In almost all instances, these districts will continue to overwhelmingly elect the minority preferred candidate,” Hunter said during the House’s floor debate.
He also defended the original map by pointing to an increase of two districts with Hispanic residents as the majority and one with Black residents as the majority based on total voting age population — a lower population threshold that’s easier to reach because it includes noncitizens who aren’t eligible to vote. But during the House’s floor debate on the map, Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Davis pointed out that the new majority-Black district Hunter was including in his count was actually her Dallas district, in which Black voters have long been able to elect their preferred candidate. Davis has represented a version of the district since 1993.
Texas lawmakers are not alone in purporting to ignore race during redistricting. Lawmakers in other states have tried the same argument in what some lawyers see as an attempt to establish a “safe harbor” in litigation.
Although Texas is no longer under federal oversight, the Voting Rights Act leaves open the possibility that states could be “bailed in” to preclearance once again if a court finds it recently intentionally discriminated against voters of color.
But redistricting is “never really race blind,” said Perales. Lawmakers are aware of the population changes in the communities they represent, and they are proceeding with changes even after hearing from residents who would see their voices diminished. This year, they’ve heard from the state demographer who estimates the Hispanic population will become the largest demographic group in the state any day.
The law also allows them to be found at fault if the maps they produced result in discrimination, even if they weren’t purposefully drawn to undermine voters of color.
“You can draw without respect to race,” Perales said. “But if you are diluting minority voting strength, there is potential liability under [the Voting Rights Act] even if there is an effort to say, ‘Well, I can’t have discriminated on the basis of race intentionally because I could not see the race of the people.’”
This story originally appeared in the Texas Tribune. To read this article in its original format, click here.