Analysis: Gerrymandering has left Texas voters with few options

Voters waited in line during the March 1 primary election at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Dallas. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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Unconventional Wisdom - April 20, 2022

The biggest blow to Texans’ voting rights isn’t found in the election laws. It’s in the political maps, where voters’ choices are overwhelmed by the partisan desires of politicians.

Redistricting removes voters’ choices, undermines public opinion, and makes government less responsive and less respected as it slips out of the control of its citizens.

Politicians have gotten so good at drawing political maps that they’re spoiling democracy. Few of the races for the Texas Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation are competitive in November; districts are drawn for either Republicans or Democrats to win, with few designed to promote competition between the parties.

The real choices, such as they are, are left to the sliver of voters who decide in primary elections what candidates their parties will send on to the easy wins in November. A lot of the 2022 elections for Congress and the Legislature are already behind us.

The effect? Rather than casting a wide net to attract voters, politically polarized legislative bodies produce polarized maps that appeal to small groups of partisans who vote in primary elections, like the ones in March that drew less than 1 in 5 registered voters this year. More numerous general election voters are left with uncompetitive November choices in districts drawn for one party or another, but not both.

Texas lawmakers drew new maps last year, after the latest census numbers came in from the federal government, telling us how many people are here now, and exactly where they live. Texas got two new congressional seats as a result of the state’s growth over the last decade, and probably would have won a third had all of the state’s residents been accurately counted.

Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in 65 of the state’s 150 state House of Representatives districts, while losing to Donald Trump in 85 other districts and by 5.6 percentage points statewide. That might as well have been the template for legislators who drew the maps last year. Their House map has 66 Democratic seats and 84 Republican seats.

The average Republican candidate in that 2020 election did better than Trump, winning by 9.1 percentage points. In the new House map, House District 112, where state Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, is the incumbent, those candidates won by 7.9 percentage points — better than Trump’s performance. That’s the most competitive Republican district on the House map, but based on recent history, Democrat Elva Curl will have a hard time taking it away.

On the other side, four of the most competitive Democratic districts went to statewide candidates by fewer than 5 percentage points in 2020. After next month’s primary runoffs produce the party nominees, three of those will be among the few truly contested legislative races in November: HD-118 in San Antonio, HD-70 in Collin County and HD-37 in Harlingen. The fourth race, in South Texas’ House District 80, is all but over: Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, doesn’t have a Republican opponent in November.

The Texas Senate districts are even less competitive. Of the 19 districts drawn for Republican advantage, Trump’s smallest margin of victory — 13.1 percentage points — was in SD-9, where incumbent Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, will face Democrat Gwenn Burud in November. Trump’s win was a low-water mark in that district: The average Republican candidate in a statewide race won by 18.2 percentage points there. It’s hard country for Democrats.

The Democratic Texas Senate districts are only a little more competitive. Republicans drew a dozen seats it would be hard for their own candidates to win — giving some ground to Democrats but also locking in the GOP’s majority grip on the Senate. Only one Democrat, Sen. Beverly Powell of Fort Worth, was fenced into a Republican district. She won her primary but then dropped out of the race, saying there is no way for a Democrat to win it: Trump won there by 15.8 percentage points, and statewide Republican candidates, on average, won by 19.2 percentage points in 2020. As unhappy as Democrats were about her decision, she’s probably right about the district.

Congressional maps in Texas are similarly noncompetitive. Two dozen of the 38 districts are safely Republican, 11 are safely Democratic and one is truly competitive — at least on paper.

The last — CD-28, where Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo is in a primary runoff with Jessica Cisneros, also of Laredo — is a wildcard. It’s a Democratic district, where Trump lost to Biden by 7 percentage points and the average Republican statewide candidate lost by 9.5 percentage points in 2020. But Cisneros came within 4 percentage points of beating Cuellar two years ago, and the FBI raided his home and office just before the primaries this year.

News like that can overwhelm a district’s partisan history, and Cuellar is in a race even though his district looks safe for Democrats. You’ll probably hear a lot about it; the way lawmakers drew these maps, all but a handful of races are uninteresting or noncompetitive or both.

They made the choices that used to be left to voters.

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