The Texas Senate distributed the first of its proposed redistricting maps Saturday and Monday, kicking off the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political maps as the Legislature convened in Austin for another special session.
The Republican-controlled Senate is suggesting new district lines for its 31 members, alongside a proposed map for the 15-member state Board of Education. Both proposals drew immediate criticism from Democrats and civil rights advocates who say they are calculated to cement GOP majorities in a state that has become bluer and more competitive in recent years — even at the cost of disenfranchising the people of color who drove Texas’ population surge.
“The state is almost 50-50 Democrat-Republican, and yet the makeup of these maps — the gerrymandering of these maps — is clearly meant for them to stay in power, which we all know,” said state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat who has already filed a lawsuit to stop the Legislature from redrawing maps this year.
In the 2020 general election, about 5.9 million Texans voted for Republican President Donald Trump’s re-election; about 5.3 million voted for Democrat Joe Biden.
The proposed Senate map, the more controversial of the two, is all but certain to change over the next few weeks. The proposal must move through both chambers of the Legislature and head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for approval.
Still, the new plan is an indication of Republicans’ ideal scenario — one in which lines are moved in purple areas in ways that appear to facilitate re-election bids for GOP incumbents who would otherwise face tough campaigns. That includes Republican state Sens. Joan Huffman of Houston and Angela Paxton of McKinney, whose districts would swell under the new proposal to include more solidly conservative areas.
A representative for Huffman, the head of the Senate redistricting committee who submitted the proposed map, did not respond to a request for comment.Map calls for big changes in the Metroplex
The most dramatic changes are seen in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the suggested new districts could help Republicans pick up a seat or two, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a politics professor at the University of Houston.
“A lot of the biggest changes are in that region, which is interesting, and does give a sense of how much it’s growing and how unpredictable that growth, politically, has been for Republicans,” he said.
Currently, the Senate is made up of 18 Republicans and 13 Democrats. The proposed map would make 18 seats “the floor,” Rottinghaus said, with the potential to secure as many as 20.
One of the districts in jeopardy belongs to state Sen. Beverly Powell, a Burleson Democrat. After the map was released Saturday, she called the proposal a “direct assault on the voting rights of minority citizens in Senate District 10.”
Texas’ population growth over the past decade has been driven almost exclusively by people of color — especially Hispanics, who now nearly match the proportion of non-Hispanic white people in the Lone Star State.
But the new map would not create any additional majority Hispanic or majority Black districts. Civil rights advocates and good-government groups say the proposal amounts to discrimination, denying Black and Latino voters the opportunity to elect senators who share their political views.
Powell’s district includes most of Tarrant County. She represents about 945,000 people — just 5,000 more than the “ideal” number of individuals per district, if the state’s population were divided equally among the 31 districts.
The proposed District 10 extends into redder Johnson and Parker counties and adds 10,000 people within the boundaries. The suggested changes would bring up the district’s proportion of white voters by roughly 10 percentage points.
“The 2020 census revealed the population of Senate District 10 is nearly ideal,” Powell said in a statement. “There is no need to make any changes to district lines.
“Moreover, since 2010, the minority population percentage within the district increased dramatically while the Anglo percentage has dropped. The changes now proposed are intended to silence and destroy the established and growing voting strength of minority voters in Tarrant County.”‘The parts of Texas I most closely identify with’
Nearly two dozen activists from across Texas gathered virtually Monday morning for a news conference to denounce the proposal.
“These lines that you are securing today will hold for the next 10 years, and with ramifications to be felt decades after,” said Amatullah Contractor, the deputy director of Emgage Texas, an advocacy group that encourages Muslim Americans to become involved in politics. “I should not have to plead with you to not dilute my voting power, and yet, historical racial gerrymandering has forced me to testify here.”
During the last redistricting fight, a panel of federal judges found that Texas had discriminated against voters of color while drawing maps in 2011. No matter what maps are passed this session, Democrats are sure to challenge them in court.
Still, as Democrats attempt to quash the proposed lines before they become law, the suggested map could open doors for Republicans eyeing a legislative bid. Former state Sen. Pete Flores of Pleasanton — who lost his Senate District 19 seat last year to Gutierrez, the San Antonio Democrat — announced Monday that he would make a comeback, this time in a run for Senate District 24.
The district, which includes much of the Hill Country, is currently held by state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway — but she is leaving her post to run for state land commissioner next year. The new Senate plan stretches the district as far south as Atascosa County, where Flores resides.
“It’s not the old District 19, but it still encompasses the heartland of Texas — the parts of Texas I most closely identify with,” Flores said in a statement. It’s also a more safely red district for the former senator.
The Legislature must also redraw lines this fall for the Texas House and the state’s congressional seats. Neither chamber has released proposals for those districts yet.
The redistricting process typically occurs in the first regular session after the decennial census, but it was delayed this year by the coronavirus pandemic.