Politics

Houston Residents Tell State Lawmakers To Reject Partisan Gerrymandering In 2021

Houstonians asked lawmakers to reject partisan gerrymandering in the upcoming redistricting process.

Map of Texas Congressional District 2.

A Texas Senate committee on Friday heard public testimony from Houston residents who urged lawmakers to eliminate partisan gerrymandering when drawing district maps this legislative session.

Invited speakers were joined by members of the public to testify at a Texas Senate Committee for Redistricting hearing about the impacts of current district lines in the area. The committee on Friday focused on maps encompassing the city of Houston and surrounding areas.

Houston lawyer Emily Eby with the Texas Civil Rights Project testified via Zoom, and displayed a map of her community as a virtual background to show the effects of gerrymandering on her family.

In making her call to stop gerrymandering in Texas, she said that even though her aunt lived nearby, she was still represented by an entirely different lawmaker.

"We ask you to keep a fair and open process above all else when you draw new lines for congressional districts, and remember that they're not just numbers and shapes, red and blue," Eby said. "This is my family that you're drawing lines around."

The most recent Texas congressional map.

The meeting was part of the larger redistricting process in Texas, based on the 2020 Census. Lawmakers are seeking public input before drafting the maps that will shape Texas politics for the next decade.

Redrawing district maps for the U.S. House of Representatives, the state legislature and the state Board of Education are among the top responsibilities for Texas lawmakers in 2021.

Republicans control a majority in both the state House of Representatives and Senate, making it likely that the final maps will favor Republicans. Democrats had hopes of flipping the state House this past election, targeting 22 Republican-held or empty seats. But that plan didn't come to fruition, and the chamber's makeup remained unchanged.

MORE | Texas Will Redraw Its Congressional Maps In 2021. Here's How

The U.S. and state House maps the Republican-run legislature enacted in 2011 were successfully challenged in 2012, and a federal court produced new maps that were later permanently adopted by the state.

Later, a judge ruled those maps were racially discriminatory, violating the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Texas' maps in 2018.

The last round of redistricting resulted in what most experts have identified as partisan gerrymandering, with one prominent example being Texas' 2nd Congressional District, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw.

The 2nd and 22nd congressional districts are considered examples of partisan gerrymandering in Texas.

The practice of partisan gerrymandering was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

The state Senate committee will spend the next two weeks focusing on the Austin and El Paso regions, followed by discussing the entirety of Texas before deciding how to draw district lines.

But while the redistricting committee relies on Census data to draw its maps, the release of that data will be delayed this year due to both the COVID-19 pandemic and interference from the Trump administration, meaning the legislature will likely go into a special session.

Dr. Lloyd Potter from the Texas Demographic Center, who has provided testimony at every redistricting meeting so far this session, looked at 2020 Census data projections for the Houston region and found that the speed at which some local population changes have taken place would require special attention during the redistricting process.

"North and south of Houston, Montgomery County and Fort Bend County, has just really rapid population growth," Potter said.

That means areas with more people will be drawn with smaller margins, encompassing less geographic area. Alternatively, in areas where population has declined, district maps will be drawn to include more geographic area to accommodate for the decrease.

In addition to population percentage increase, Potter told lawmakers that diversity in the Houston area has also been on the rise.

"We're expecting that in 2021, maybe in 2022, that the Hispanic population will be the same or above the Non-Hispanic white population," Potter said. "The Asian population has also been growing a lot, even though it’s a small percentage of the total population."

Projected population changes in Texas.

Along with calls for an end to gerrymandering, lawmakers were asked to make the redistricting process more transparent to the public.

One teacher from the Heights compared lawmakers' mapping process to her students' classwork.

"Harris County district maps, quite frankly, look quite a bit like my kindergarteners' finger painting experiments," she said. "And what I want to see is more focus around bringing in more transparency."

Much like others testifying, she asked to see what the lawmakers were doing, and to run the maps by the public before voting on them.

"If we ask our students to show their work in school, then we should ask the same of the legislators we elect," she said. "Transparency is vital."

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