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Why Texas' Draft Map Of Congressional Districts Is Rankling Many Black, Latino Voters


Republican lawmakers in Texas released a map first thing Monday morning. Stephanie Gomez was in the middle of an all-staff phone call.

STEPHANIE GOMEZ: You know, we got the text. Like, the maps are out. These are the maps that we have been waiting for. And so, of course, everything stopped.

CHANG: Gomez is associate director of Common Cause Texas. It's a nonprofit that works on issues like voting and elections. And the map that she's talking about - well, it's a big deal.

GOMEZ: I don't know if I'm allowed to cuss, but it was very like, oh, hell. Everyone, open up the maps, and let's just - let's take a look at everything.

CHANG: It's the first draft of what congressional districts could look like in Texas for the next decade. Maps for state house districts are also being rolled out. You see; every state right now is drawing new districts based on the 2020 census.

GOMEZ: What's most noticeable - right? - is kind of like these muddy little blocks in the urban areas of Texas. Of course, our eyes were like, OK, we're supposed to get two opportunity districts for minorities. Let's see where they end up putting those.

CHANG: Texas grew so much over the last decade that it's going to get two more seats in the next Congress. And that population growth is driven almost entirely by Latinos and other people of color in the state. But here's the thing. This new map, proposed by Republican state lawmakers in Texas, would actually reduce the number of voting districts where Black and Latino voters are the majority.

GOMEZ: It's so hard to be a Texan who is fighting for an equitable democracy.

CHANG: The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which grades redistricting maps on things like how fair or competitive the districts are, gave the Texas Congressional District Map a flat-out F. We're going to spend the next few minutes now unpacking what's going on with the Texas map and also check in on how this redistricting process is going across the country. We're joined now by Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, and James Barragan. He covers politics at the Texas Tribune. Welcome to both of you.

JAMES BARRAGAN: It's good to be here.

MICHAEL LI: Good to be here.

CHANG: Let's focus on Texas for the time being. James, again in that state, Republicans have the power to draw voting maps because they control the Legislature. You know, it's no surprise here that Democrats don't like this Republican proposal for this new map, but can you just explain what specifically are Democrats criticizing?

BARRAGAN: Well, I think the main thing is that the population growth of the state over the last 10 years was fueled 95% by communities of color, particularly the Hispanic community here. What map-drawers will do often is that they'll "crack it," quote, unquote, by bringing a portion of a district that's from a faraway other area and just jut into the area where that large Hispanic population is. The one I'm thinking particularly, just because I've covered it for many years, is the Dallas, Fort Worth area, where the Hispanic population in Dallas is actually the largest racial or ethnic group in the county. And there was opportunity there for those people to have a candidate of their choice, and there was no such district drawn. And that's important because, particularly in Dallas, like, there's never been a Hispanic elected to Congress from that area, even though it's a significant amount of the population.

CHANG: OK, that's cracking. That's when you're diluting minority voting power. What else are they doing?

BARRAGAN: And then there's packing. In a district like, for example, Colin Allred, who flipped the district in 2018, which was traditionally Republican, they've packed Democratic voters into what was previously a competitive district that could have gone one way or another to make it easier for him to win. But that also helps other Republican neighbors have easier races, such as Beth Van Duyne in Congressional District 24.

CHANG: OK, so that's packing. That's when you're concentrating like-minded voters into districts so there are fewer districts that are actually competitive. But let's be very clear, legally speaking. What we're talking about - partisan gerrymandering - that is redrawing district boundaries that give political advantage to the party in power. It's been going on for generations now. And it is not in and of itself unconstitutional. I mean, the Supreme Court reinforced that it is not in and of itself unconstitutional back in 2019.

LI: That's right. But that doesn't mean that there isn't some limit to partisan gerrymandering, because at another decision, the Supreme Court said if you overuse race as a tool to achieve partisan advantage, that could be a racial gerrymander that violates the Constitution. In other words, you can't use race as a tool to get to a partisan gerrymander.

CHANG: Exactly.

LI: And of course, the reality is in Texas, you can't get to a partisan gerrymander without hurting communities of color.

CHANG: Partisanship and race are inextricably intertwined. You know, we should also note that this is the first time that states are redrawing their congressional districts since the Supreme Court gutted part of the Voting Rights Act, when they eviscerated a provision that had required certain states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get free clearance from the federal government before making any voting changes. That was Shelby County v. Holder back in 2013. How much can we attribute what's happening in Texas right now to that Supreme Court ruling?

BARRAGAN: I think a large portion of it could probably be attributed to it. There's no buffer to protect voters of color from being discriminated against. And so I think lawmakers are drawing maps that are advantageous to them because there is no immediate buffer. Of course, there can be litigation, and people who are aggrieved by this can try to get an injunction on these maps. But previously, there had been this requirement that the federal government had to OK these maps, and that was put in place specifically to prevent this kind of discrimination against voters of color. That is no longer the case right now.

CHANG: Well, Democrats have also pushed to use partisan gerrymandering to their advantage in states like Maryland, Illinois and New York. Michael, can you just talk a little bit about how the redistricting process in New York is playing out so far?

LI: Well, what we're seeing around the country is that the process is a lot more partisan than it was last time. You know, even in states that adopted reforms that were designed to make the process more bipartisan, that isn't turning out to be true. You know, people are putting on their team hats and, you know, trying to maximize advantage for their political party. And, you know, Democrats this cycle are doing it as much as Republicans. In the past, Democrats have been a little asleep at the wheel, but they're awake this year.

CHANG: I also want to ask, you know, because states are handling this process in lots of different ways, there is a handful of states that have shifted to independent redistricting commissions where politicians are not the ones who are redrawing the maps. This was supposed to take the partisanship out of redistricting. But Michael, does that even work? Are these commissions truly independent from politics? Is that even possible?

LI: Well, what we've seen about independent commissions and the maps that they've drawn so far - there's a limited amount of data available because it's a relatively new concept - is that they actually do draw really good maps. So, for example, in California, as Democrats win more votes, they win more seats. As Republicans win more votes, they win more seats. And a prime example of that is Orange County in California where Democrats picked up a bunch of seats in 2018. Republicans won a bunch back in 2020 as the mood shifted slightly. And that would be what most people say democracy should look like.

CHANG: Well, James, these maps in Texas are not final. Can you just tell us what's the next step in the process here?

BARRAGAN: Sure. If it's approved by the Senate, it'll get sent over to the House. And then the House will go through the same process before sending it over to the governor. I think one complicating factor is that we're in a 30-day special legislative session here in Texas. And so we may run out of time to pass all of these maps and may have to go into an overtime period.

CHANG: That is James Barragan - he covers politics at the Texas Tribune - and Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. Thank you to both of you.

BARRAGAN: Thank you.

LI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.