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Analysis

Anatomy of the Texas Gerrymander

Here’s how Texas Republicans crafted one of the most politically and racially skewed maps of this redistricting cycle.

When Texas Repub­lic­ans redrew their state’s congres­sional map earlier this year, they took what had been one of the most compet­it­ive and polit­ic­ally inter­est­ing maps in the coun­try and, through discrim­in­a­tion against fast-grow­ing racial and ethnic minor­it­ies, trans­formed it into one of the most boring and least dynamic. The Depart­ment of Justice sued Texas this week, alleging that the legis­lature’s gerry­mander is inten­tion­ally racially discrim­in­at­ory and viol­ates the Voting Rights Act. We break down how Texas did it.

The Old Map

During the last decade, Texas used a congres­sional map drawn initially by the Repub­lican legis­lature in 2011 and then partially redrawn by courts to remedy find­ings of racial discrim­in­a­tion. Despite the court-ordered fixes, the map remained an aggress­ive gerry­mander, with Repub­lic­ans hold­ing a wildly dispro­por­tion­ate 25–11 edge in the state’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion for almost all of the decade.

But gerry­man­der­ing can be complic­ated in a state that’s grow­ing and shift­ing demo­graph­ic­ally as rapidly as Texas is, and it turned out that Repub­lic­ans had over­reached when they drew the map in 2011. Instead of concen­trat­ing Repub­lican voters to guar­an­tee ultra-safe seats, they tried to maxim­ize seat share by spread­ing Repub­lican voters across a large number of districts. That turned out to be a seri­ous miscal­cu­la­tion as urban and suburban districts grew demo­graph­ic­ally diverse and as white suburban voters shif­ted in large numbers toward Demo­crats. By 2018, Demo­crats were able to flip two Repub­lican-held suburban seats and came within a hair­breadth of winning several others. Repub­lic­ans ended the decade hanging on to a 23–13 advant­age, but just barely.

The New Map

This decade, Repub­lic­ans shif­ted tactics. Rather than target Demo­cratic seats, they would shore up the exist­ing gerry­mander, making Repub­lican seats safer. The results are illus­trated in the chart below.

The chart’s green curve shows districts before redis­trict­ing. Under the old map, the 7th District and 32nd District, two suburban seats picked up by Demo­crats in 2018, were fiercely compet­it­ive and vulner­able to flip­ping back to Repub­lic­ans, espe­cially if Repub­lic­ans were to make inroads with non-white voters. More prob­lem­atic from the stand­point of Repub­lic­ans, the green curve also shows that a number of Repub­lican districts were compet­it­ive for Demo­crats if they could find a way to improve on Senate candid­ate Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 perform­ance.

By contrast, the chart’s purple curve shows how the 2021 redis­trict­ing upen­ded the map. By re-gerry­man­der­ing, Repub­lic­ans were able to lock in a lopsided 24–14 advant­age for Repub­lic­ans in a state that is increas­ingly becom­ing a cent­ral battle­ground. To be favored to win more seats, Demo­crats would need to win 58 percent or more of the statewide vote — some­thing improb­able for the fore­see­able future.

One part of the shor­ing up of the map occurred in cent­ral Texas. Divid­ing heav­ily Demo­cratic Austin among multiple districts was key to the 2011 GOP strategy of minim­iz­ing the number of Demo­cratic seats. The Repub­lic­ans’ 2011 map infam­ously splintered the city among six districts. But since the last round of redis­trict­ing, Austin’s popu­la­tion has boomed and, crit­ic­ally, became even more loyally Demo­cratic. The once safely Repub­lican districts around Austin grew danger­ously compet­it­ive.

To deal with their Austin prob­lem, Repub­lic­ans placed the bulk of Austin in a new heav­ily Demo­cratic district — essen­tially ceding one district to Demo­crats in order to shore up multiple adja­cent GOP districts. As shown in the purple curve in the chart above, the change had its inten­ded effect. The new Austin-based 37th District is one of the most Demo­cratic in the state. Mean­while, the 10th and 21st Districts, which had once been highly compet­it­ive for Demo­crats, both became much more safely Repub­lican, as did the slightly less compet­it­ive 25th and 31st Districts.

But if Repub­lic­ans were will­ing to create a heav­ily white Demo­cratic district in cent­ral Texas, they took a differ­ent tack when it came to communit­ies of color. Despite the fact that non-white communit­ies were respons­ible for 95 percent of the state’s popu­la­tion growth last decade, Repub­lic­ans refused to create addi­tional new minor­ity oppor­tun­ity districts in either the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex or Hous­ton. In addi­tion, they aggress­ively broke up diverse suburban districts where multiracial coali­tions had come close to winning power last decade.

The changes had both a polit­ical effect and a racial one. Suburban communit­ies of color in places like Fort Bend County were ruth­lessly divided — some voters of color were kept in exist­ing districts, while others were surgic­ally moved into Demo­cratic-held swing districts. As a result, once highly compet­it­ive, white-major­ity swing districts became deeply Demo­cratic ones under the new map. Those voters of color who were shif­ted out of suburban districts were replaced with whiter exurban or rural voters, turn­ing those districts solidly Repub­lican even though they continue to have signi­fic­ant non-white popu­la­tions.

Multiple lawsuits, includ­ing one by the Biden admin­is­tra­tion, are pending to chal­lenge the racially discrim­in­at­ory aspects of the new Texas map. But, even if success­ful, litig­a­tion chal­len­ging maps may take years — and multiple elec­tion cycles — to fully wend its way through the courts. And unless Congress strengthens protec­tions for communit­ies of color with bills like the Free­dom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, it may be diffi­cult to fully remedy discrim­in­a­tion. In the mean­time, while Texans wait on courts and Congress, Texas will have one of the least compet­it­ive maps in the nation, and its boom­ing communit­ies of color once again will be shut out of their fair share of power.