It’s not just about Congress: Gerrymandering is sweeping through Texas towns and counties
Elected leaders at the county, city and school board level have largely avoided the scrutiny targeted at Republicans in the state legislature earlier this year when they drew state and federal lines to overwhelmingly favor white Texans. But the stakes are high in the fight over local district boundaries as well.
Dwight Briggs has lived in Collin County for thirty years. And he’s witnessed tremendous growth in its Asian population over the past decade. But as he stood in a Plano shopping center that’s home to several South Asian-owned businesses, Briggs noted the Asian community’s political clout has been diminished.
In short, he said, county commissioners recently had an opportunity to redraw precinct maps dividing that community. They chose not to.
“The opportunity to correct the maps and create fair maps was not taken,” said Briggs, who works with groups like Good Citizens of DFW to educate area residents about voting. “You still have that dilution of the voting impact.”
One commissioner said his focus was on keeping the county politically “red.”
This fall, local government officials of both parties around Texas have advanced gerrymandered districts to solidify their power. These elected leaders at the county, city and school board level have largely avoided the scrutiny directed at Republicans in the state legislature when they drew state and federal lines to overwhelmingly favor white Texans.
But the stakes are high in the fight over local district boundaries as well.
County commissioners, city council members and school board members often impact the lives of Texans more directly than members of Congress in Washington. They hire school superintendents, city managers and public health directors. Local officials also decide how to allocate federal dollars in, say, a COVID-19 relief package. County commissioners often have a robust oversight role in local elections and certify the results.
“When we’re talking about election security and integrity and access, all of that is run at the county level,” said Sarah Chen at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
The Collin County Commissioners Court recently completed new maps for its four commissioner districts. Ten Plano voting precincts south of the Sam Rayburn Tollway were cleaved from their Plano neighbors and crammed into a different commissioner district. Several of those 10 precincts are between 35% and 70% Asian.
The surrounding Plano area, represented by a different commissioner, is not as heavily Asian, but still between 10% and 35% of the residents.
Collin County released 26 proposed maps prior to the November 1st hearing where commissioners voted on new districts. No racial or ethnic data accompanied the proposals, and commissioners only allowed members of the public a few minutes of testimony to weigh in.
“I had drawn maps with the future of Collin County in mind,” Commissioner Darrell Hale said during the meeting. He said his focus was “on keeping Collin County red, frankly.”
(The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2019 gerrymandering for partisan political gain is not something federal courts can rule on.)
Collin County is just one of many places where the redistricting process left a lot to be desired, Chen said.
Galveston County, south of Houston, diluted the voting strength of communities of color with its maps, making it much harder for a longtime commissioner Stephen Holmes to win re-election. Black and Latino voters for years combined forces to elect Holmes, most recently in 2020. Holmes, who is Black, is the only minority and the only Democrat serving on the Galveston County Commissioners Court.
Harris County’s commissioners court is dominated by Democrats. It’s also under fire for a map that would likely switch a county commissioner precinct from Republican to Democratic control. Republican officials in Harris County have filed a lawsuit to strike down the map, although Democrats say it simply corrects a gerrymander from 2011.
“The [map] today, I think, does do, frankly a better job in keeping those communities of color, communities of interest together,” said Renee Cross, senior director at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “However, there is one particular precinct that is very geographically gerrymandered.”
The stakes for a 3-2 commissioners court versus a 4-1 court are high, Cross said. Four commissioners can reach a quorum to set the tax rate, whereas three commissioners cannot.
Chen cited Caldwell County, east of San Marcos, as an example of where public input had a meaningful effect on the outcome and kept historic Latino neighborhood intact.
After initial maps had been released and discussed, community members and local officials asked for a delay. Their concern was with two neighborhoods being moved to a different commissioner precinct, one where “they might be forgotten,” said Raymond de Leon, Caldwell County’s Justice of the Peace for Precinct 4.
“I don’t believe it was being maliciously done,” de Leon said. “But I don’t think that when they made the decision, they really took into account how it was going to disrupt those two neighborhoods.”
The two neighborhoods were restored to their original precinct, and most of the participants agreed on consensus maps. De Leon, a Democrat, noted that the 4-1 commissioners court could have easily plowed ahead with their plan.
“We were just very fortunate that that commissioners court was able to listen to us, because I know that across the state that hasn’t been the case,” he said.
Chen said Caldwell County is an example of “what a handful of really concerned people can do to influence their local maps.”
She has been working with groups in various counties to get more transparency and public participation in redistricting.
Counties like Fort Bend permitted more public participation when pushed. Others, like Tarrant County, received criticism for alleged secrecy in drawing districts for constables and justices of the peace.
Voting rights advocates are now turning to city council and school board redistricting.
“There will need to be a lot, a lot of organizing to make sure that school board districts are drawn fairly,” Chen said.
There are many lawsuits charging that new maps for the state legislature and Congress discriminate against people of color. State Sen . Joan Huffman , R-Houston , who led the senate redistricting committee, has said lawmakers did not look at racial data in drawing the maps. (The Houston Chronicle reported this claim may be part of a legal strategy to defend the districts in court.)
It’s unclear, however, whether democracy advocates can effectively oppose new local maps in court. There are 254 counties in Texas — and more than 1 ,000 towns and cities.
“There are just way too many jurisdictions across the state for voting rights advocates … to be productive,” said Stephanie Swanson, redistricting chair of the League of Women Voters of Texas. “We’re just at a significant disadvantage right now.”
This is the first redistricting cycle in which all jurisdictions in Texas don’t have to submit their maps to federal authorities for “pre-clearance.” Pre-clearance for select states and localities with a history of discrimination in voting ended with the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder.
Yet discrimination of the basis of race in elections is still illegal. “Any electoral practice or procedure that minimizes or cancels out the voting strength of members of racial or language minority groups in the voting population” is prohibited under the Voting Rights Act, according to guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice.
At least a few lawsuits against counties over their maps seem likely. Chen said the Texas Civil Rights Project is “definitely exploring those options.”
Swanson said she mostly sees counties and cities striving to draw districts that have roughly the same number of people. They aren’t, however, creating new opportunities for Black, Latino or Asian voters to elect representatives of their choice, despite the massive increase in Texans of color since 2010. That can lead to a dilution in the voting strength of those residents.
“These jurisdictions aren’t really considering the Voting Rights Act when they’re drawing districts,” she said.
And while coalition districts like the one dismantled in Galveston County are not legally required by federal law, removing one could be a problem.
“Intentionally getting rid of a district that’s protected under the Voting Rights Act can be indicative of intentional discrimination,” said Swanson. “And so now this is going to have to probably play out in court.”
Meanwhile, the new county precincts may be in place for the next election. Court cases, Swanson said, take a very long time.
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