Delays in the release of data, the elimination of some federal oversight and the continued Republican Party presence will mark the 2021 redistricting process, the decennial effort that ultimately decides how voters are represented.
Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau embarks on a lofty effort to obtain an accurate nationwide population count. The results allow counties to better understand what services need to be created or changed to serve their residents. Additionally, state leaders use the census data to redraw U.S. House, state Senate, state House and State Board of Education seats. County officials use the data to redraw their precincts.
The process can be fraught with political infighting and difficult racial discussions because redistricting ultimately determines who represents residents — who gets to hold political power.
“In many ways, redistricting will go a long way towards determining who continues to run the show in Austin during the current decade, and the same is true at the county level,” said Mark P. Jones with Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Because the pandemic has caused the federal government to delay sending redistricting data to states until Sept. 30, the Texas Legislature will likely hold a special session sometime in the fall or winter to draw the maps. The regular legislative session ended May 31.
When the federal government releases the data, counties can also start drawing their maps.
Because of the delay, the March 2022 primaries will likely be pushed back as well.
“There won't be enough time to meet the March primary because the filing period for that is in mid-November. So obviously, that's going to compress the time available to do the work, and it leaves the election calendar uncertain,” said Robert T. Bass, a preeminent redistricting attorney for Texas counties.
How does redistricting work?
Redistricting committees in the Legislature have been holding hearings since 2019 to learn how local communities have changed and how policy issues could be affected by demographic shifts. Members of the public, interest groups and government officials have provided input.
Once Texas officials receive redistricting data from the federal government, lawmakers, with the help of the Texas Legislative Council, plop the information into a computer program called “Red Apple” to mock up different maps. The public in the past has had access to Red Apple and can provide input to lawmakers.
Approval of the maps follows the same process for any other piece of legislation. Both chambers must agree on the versions, and the governor will give final approval.
On the county level, commissioners courts ultimately decide on precinct maps.
Each precinct, ward or district should be as equal as geographically possible in population. Although it cannot be the controlling factor, race is a significant factor.
What’s different this time around?
Under the Voting Rights Act, redistricting plans cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group. Redistricting plans also cannot have a discriminatory effect or purpose.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act by deciding in Shelby County v. Holder that some governmental bodies, including those in Texas, no longer had to have their maps preapproved by the federal government. Opponents of the decision said they feared this meant that discriminatory maps could go into effect, unless a court ruled in favor of plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit.
“This will be the first one where these maps will go straight into force, as opposed to having to clear the hurdle of the federal district court in the District of Columbia or the Department of Justice,” Jones said.
Jones said that unlike prior to 2013, when states had to prove that their maps were not discriminatory, the burden of proof now lies with those who say the maps are discriminatory.
Bass recommends that counties continue to create maps as if they would be subject to preapproval by the federal government, in case they are sued for violating the Voting Rights Act. Bass and Jones anticipate lawsuits will be filed to challenge some of the maps.
“Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is the enforcement section that allows any affected voter to file a lawsuit to challenge the status of the election or the changes. I expect there will be some, particularly in light of the [delayed release of the data] and the likelihood of an allegation by the Department of Justice,” Bass said.
Maps are expected to favor Republicans, because of their numbers in the Texas Legislature, the Shelby ruling, and a Supreme Court that is more conservative than it was 10 years ago, Jones said.
“The Republican Party is more in the driver's seat this redistricting cycle than in any redistricting cycle before,” Jones said.
Initial data released by the bureau this year shows that Texas will gain two House seats because of population growth — from 25.1 million residents in 2010 to 29.1 million today. Texas will soon have 38 U.S. representatives.
Jones expects increases in the Hispanic population in parts of the state to contribute to the redrawing of lines.
“There will be a lot of pressure on counties, including some in West Texas that aren’t normally associated with having significant Latino populations that now have significant Latino populations, to create at least one, if not more, Latino-majority districts,” Jones said.
What to expect at the county level
The populations of 68 Texas counties – many of which are suburban – have grown at least 10% between 2010 and 2020, according to census estimates, while 13 rural counties have experienced at least a 10% decline in population during the same time period.
At the precinct level, even when total populations don’t change, populations within precincts can transform as people move into town and racial makeups shift. Bass said that more than half of counties in 2011 had to change their precinct boundaries.
Areas that could swing Republican or Democrat, including parts of Hays, Williamson, Harris and Fort Bend counties, are places to pay close attention to see how redistricting will pan out this year, Jones said.
“Of the 254 counties, some of them are going to have a very easy time in the redistricting because relatively little has changed,” Jones said. “But you're going to have a smaller number of counties where it's going to be more complicated because of both population growth and, within the county, disproportionate population growth."
The drawing of precinct lines at the county level can be just as much of a political dance as state-level redistricting.
"A candidate or an officeholder can get very attached to their constituency over a 10-year period,” Bass said. "[Redistricting] is a tough deal. It has big consequences.” h
Staff writer Shiloh Perry contributed to this report.
Although counties are months away from receiving redistricting data, there are some steps they can take now, according to Texas redistricting attorney Robert T. Bass. Members can learn more about redistricting and the changing state demographics from Bass and State Demographer Lloyd Potter at the 2021 TAC Legislative Conference on Sept. 1-3. To register, visit www.county.org/legconference.
- Assemble current election precinct maps.
- Identify existing polling places.
- Locate incumbent residences (to keep them in their precinct).
- Gather election history for prior 10 years.
- Evaluate the accuracy of maps/boundary descriptions for existing precincts.
Develop criteria for reapportionment (of population) by:
- Ensuring precincts are compact and contiguous, and have well-defined boundaries.
- Preserve neighborhoods and communities of interest.
- Comply with the Voting
- Rights Act.
- Facilitate government functions, such as delivery of services, election administration and balancing the budget.