Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
If you would like to listen to the column, click on the play button below.
(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)
With new political maps like these, it would have been surprising if the U.S. Department of Justice had decided not to sue the state of Texas.
Texas has about 8.3 million more residents than it did at the beginning of the century, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and 7.6 million of those new residents are people of color. It means the state has nearly equal numbers of Latino and white residents (39.3% and 39.8%, respectively), according to the 2020 census. Black residents accounted for 11.8% of the state’s population, Asian residents for about 5.4%.
You wouldn’t know that by looking at the new maps drawn for representation in the state’s congressional delegation or its Legislature. In 65% of the congressional districts, white Texans are in the majority; Hispanic residents are the majority in 18.4% of those districts.
Roughly equal in population, unequal in representation.
Here’s how the DOJ said it in the federal lawsuit the agency filed this week: “The Legislature refused to recognize the State’s growing minority electorate.”
Courts have frowned on maps that go in the wrong direction, taking districts away from populations that have historically been in the minority. The Texas maps arguably do that in two ways, and their detractors are making those arguments.
The DOJ lawsuit points to the 23rd Congressional District that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and takes in most of the state’s international border. As it tried to do 10 years ago, the feds contend, “Texas made District 23 less of an electoral opportunity for minority-preferred candidates by consciously replacing many of the district’s active Latino voters with low-turnout Latino citizens, in an effort to strengthen the voting power of Anglo citizens while preserving the superficial appearance of Latino control.”
A second way to diminish the power of groups of voters is to ignore their growth, leaving a map drawn for one snapshot of the Texas population in place when that population has changed considerably.
Since the start of the century, 8.3 million more people live in Texas. What was a state with 20.9 million residents in 2000 is now a state with 29.1 million, according to the census. In the first 10 years of the century, according to the 2010 census, 89% of the 4.3 million new Texans were people of color. In the second, 95% of the growth was attributable to people of color.
Over those two decades, for every 10 additional Hispanic, Black, Asian and other Texans of color, there was one additional white Texan.
This is the first time in decades that Texas hasn’t had to seek federal approval of its maps before putting them into effect. That “preclearance” requirement was struck down by a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said places like Texas that had histories of racial discrimination in their election and voting laws and practice would no longer be automatically subjected to federal approval.
The maps drawn this year are the first overhauls of the state’s political districts since that ruling. The federal government’s lawsuit against the state contends that Texas hasn’t changed its ways — that state legislators discriminated on the basis of race in the design of the new maps. Without that built-in obstacle of preclearance, the federal lawyers who used to have some say over changes in Texas election law now have to go to court. Their objections this year come in the form of a lawsuit, but they mirror DOJ objections of years past against maps drawn by Republican and Democratic Texas lawmakers.
Demographically, Texas is not the same state it was 20 years ago. The population has increased nearly 40% in that time. But voting power, thanks in large measure to the fervent efforts of the state Legislature, hasn’t shifted at the same pace.
The state’s conservatism has been relatively constant; Texas has been strongly Republican in its voting patterns for that whole period, including in the statewide elections that aren’t subject to redistricting. It’s not about what party people favor, but about whether maps are being drawn to favor particular groups on the basis of race.
It’s hard to deny the numbers.
Senate redistricting chair Joan Huffman, R-Houston, has said that the mapmakers were “race-blind” — that they didn’t draw the maps based on racial or ethnic differences.
Intent doesn’t matter. If racial disparity was the result — whether or not lawmakers had race in mind when they were making the maps — then those maps are not legal.
Even before the lawsuits started to fly, the differences between what the census found and what the politicians put on paper were vast. And now this all goes to the courts, where federal judges will say whether Texas was fair and legal when it portioned out political power to its citizens.