Texas Republicans are on the verge of enacting new voting maps that would entrench the state’s Republican and white majority even as its non-white population grows rapidly.
Texas Republicans approved the congressional plan on Monday evening, sending it to Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, who is expected to sign the measure.
The Texas maps offer perhaps the most brazen effort in the United States so far this year to draw new district lines to benefit one political party, a practice called gerrymandering. The proposed congressional map would blunt growing Democratic strength in the Texas suburbs. Texas Republicans already have a 23-13 seat advantage in the state’s congressional delegation and the new maps would double the number of safe GOP congressional seats in the state from 11 to 22, according to the Washington Post.
Democrats would have 12 safe seats, up from eight. There would be just one competitive congressional district in the state, down from 12.
The map also clearly blunts the growing political strength of minorities in Texas. Over the last decade, the Hispanic population has grown by nearly 2 million people in the state, while the white population increased by about 187,000 people. Ninety-five per cent of the state’s population growth over the last decade has come from minorities, but the proposed congressional map actually lowers the number of districts in the state where non-white people comprise a majority. There would be one additional district where whites make up a majority of voters.
“You have to try real hard to draw districts that don’t contemplate the 95% growth in communities of color. I mean you have to be really intentional,” said Rafael Anchia, a Democrat in the Texas house who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “In district after district the voting power of minority populations was diluted over and over again.”
Republicans have rushed their map proposals through the state legislature, giving the public little opportunity to have their say. Sometimes hearings were announced with just 24 hours’ notice, and several votes to advance the plans took place in the late hours of the night. “The legislature just rammed this through,” Anchia said.
“It’s pretty demoralizing, to be honest with you,” he added. “You have a rigging of the rules of the game from the last decade, that permits the majority to manipulate the rules from the redistricting process to then continue to hold on to power and deny people policy outcomes that will materially impact their lives.”
Civil rights groups have already filed one federal lawsuit seeking to prevent the state from using the maps in the future. The suit, filed on Monday in federal court in San Antonio, argues that the maps violate both the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. The maps “unlawfully dilute the voting strength of Latinos”, lawyers representing the plaintiffs wrote, and “intentionally discriminate against them on the basis of race and national origin”.
Republicans have complete control of state government in Texas, which also means they have complete control over the redistricting process. The new maps offer a clear example of how lawmakers can stop political change and virtually guarantee their re-election for the decade over which the maps are used.
The Republican effort to entrench power is clearest in the suburbs, which are the fastest-growing and some of the most diverse in the state. In several places, Republicans annexed areas with fast-growing minority populations to rural areas that are more likely to vote for GOP candidates. The tactics ensure the districts will remain reliably red.
“What this map tells me is [Republicans] are not sure they’re getting white suburban voters back, so they’ve decided we’re just going to use rural voters to neutralize the suburbs,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.
It’s a strategy on full display in places like the suburbs of Dallas, which includes the 33rd congressional district.
Hispanic voters make up nearly a majority of the district, according to the Texas Tribune. But in their new map, Republicans carved out a heavily Hispanic portion of the 33rd and attached it instead to the sixth congressional district nextdoor, which stretches over 6,000 square miles all the way into rural east Texas. The Hispanic voters will be shifted from a Democratic district in which they had significant political weight to one in which white people nearly make up a majority.
A similar strategy is on display in Fort Bend county, which includes the south-west Houston suburbs. It is one of the fastest-growing and most diverse across the country – nearly evenly split between whites, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans. Democrats have been making clear gains there; Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both carried the district in 2016 and 2020.
Under the new Republican map, some of the most Democratic-leaning areas in the county would be lumped in with already heavily Democratic districts in Houston. The remaining portion of the county will be attached to rural areas that are solidly Republican. It’s a configuration that will ensure a Republican candidate can hold on to the congressional district.
Because of the supreme court’s 2013 decision hollowing out the Voting Rights Act, this will be the first time since 1965 that Texas does not have to submit its maps to the federal government for approval before they go into effect. It will be a huge boon to Texas, where courts have repeatedly struck down districts as violations of the Voting Rights Act in every decade since the law went into effect.
In 2011, when Texas still had to submit its maps for pre-clearance, federal courts blocked the maps from going into effect. Later, a federal court found that the 2011 maps were passed with an intent to discriminate against minority voters.
A federal voting rights bill, the For the People Act, which is pending in the Senate, would most probably block the Texas congressional plan, Li said. The bill would allow a court to block a plan from being used if computer simulations showed the plan would result in a level of bias beyond a certain threshold in two of the four most recent US Senate and presidential elections. The Texas plan would fail in all four elections, Li said.
Democrats are set to hold a vote on the legislation on Wednesday, but Republicans are likely to block it using the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation. There are calls for Democrats to get rid of the rule to pass voting rights legislation.
Earlier this year, Anchia and his fellow Democrats left Texas for several weeks, denying lawmakers a quorum as they sought to advance sweeping voting rights legislation. They spent that time in Washington lobbying senators to pass federal voting rights legislation.
“The Senate has to act. They have to act because democracy requires it,” Anchia said.