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In Texas Redistricting Fight, A Can of Worms for Everyone

Today, Texas redistricting returned to the U.S. Supreme Court in Evenwel v. Abbott.

December 8, 2015

Cross-posted in TribTalk

On Tuesday, Texas redistricting returns to the U.S. Supreme Court in a big way when in Evenwel v. Abbott the court considers a challenge to the way that Texas equalizes the populations of its legislative districts.

Right now Texas, like all other states, draws districts so that they have the same number of people. A group of challengers, however, says that is unconstitutional because while Texas districts may contain an equal number of people, some districts contain many more eligible voters — mainly because parts of Texas have higher numbers of children and immigrants. Given that Texas’ fast-growing Hispanic communities tend to have high numbers of both, some of the greatest impact from changing from population to voter-based apportionment will be felt in Hispanic districts.

But while there may be a temptation to see the Evenwel case as yet another in the long chain of struggles between Anglos and Hispanics over power in Texas, the case could have a far more dramatic impact if maps have to be redrawn.

To get a sense of the challenge of redrawing maps to equalize citizen voting-age population (CVAP) — a proxy for eligible voters — consider the case of Dallas County.

Dallas County now has 14 state house seats. However, it would lose one of those seats if Texas were required to equalize citizen voting-age population due to the comparatively large numbers of children and non-citizens in the county. That loss would require a politically complicated adjustment of boundaries.

Currently the county has six majority-minority districts, all of which are represented by African-American or Latino Democrats. The remaining eight seats are controlled electorally by white voters and are represented by Republicans (mostly safe from challenge from Democrats).

While the state’s Republican-controlled legislature would have a political incentive to try to eliminate one of the Democratic seats, minority groups can be expected to vigorously oppose such efforts. If courts agree with minority groups, Texas would need to eliminate one of the eight districts where white Republicans are politically dominant. And even if a district survived, it would change considerably.

Take, for example, District 115, a suburban district in the northwest corner of the county that is 60% white by citizen voting-age population and has a large Asian immigrant population as well as a sizeable Hispanic population — and lots of children of all backgrounds.

District 115 is a safe Republican seat where election outcomes are determined by white voters who, as in most of Texas, tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican. It is also a fairly logical district from a geographic perspective, consisting of the bulk of the suburban communities of Coppell, Carrollton, and Farmers Branch and parts of Irving. The district was a Republican primary battleground in 2014 when tea party candidate Matt Rinaldi defeated the establishment Republican incumbent, Bennett Ratcliff, by the razor-thin margin of 92 votes. The two are already set for a rematch for the state house seat in 2016.

Redrawing the district to equalize eligible voters would be hard, however, because the district would need to gain 7,290 adult citizens (a citizen voting-age population gain of 6.8 percent), a task made more difficult by the fact that all of the surrounding districts are also underpopulated and one — District 103 — is a Latino majority district protected by the Voting Rights Act.

One logical solution would be to extend District 115 southwest into territory that is currently a part of District 114. While District 114 is also underpopulated, it could easily give up population to District 115 and still pick up the added population it needs by expanding south into territory that is part of the significantly overpopulated District 108.

However, District 114, which is wholly contained within the city of Dallas, is one of the wealthiest house districts in Texas (home to former President George W. Bush, Ross Perot, and Mark Cuban) and distinctly more moderate in its political profile — fiscally conservative but more socially moderate. Adding territory from District 114 to cure the citizen voting-age population shortfall in District 115 would almost certainly change the political profile of the latter.

While the redrawn district would not be vulnerable for Republicans in the general election, the outcome in the low-turnout Republican primary is a different story. Indeed, all of the neighborhoods in District 114 adjoining District 115 favored establishment Republican John Carona in his losing 2014 state senate primary battle with tea party challenger Don Huffines. In a district where a tea party candidate prevailed by 92 votes in a tough primary fight, even small shifts could have huge impacts.

Similar, dynamics would play out across the state in a broad range of communities, from suburban Collin County, which has lots of children, to Austin, where the city center is increasingly becoming childless and where white majority Democratic districts are overpopulated and would need to shed significant numbers of voters.

So while Evenwel would have a dramatic impact for Texas Hispanics, the also could have as big an impact in other communities and upend redistricting in unexpected ways. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)