The U.S. Supreme Court blocked two lower court rulings Sept. 12 that invalidated parts of the state’s U.S. House maps in which lawmakers were found to have discriminated against minority voters, putting on hold efforts to redraw those maps.
U.S. House District 35, which stretches along I-35 from Austin to San Antonio, was deemed illegally drawn because lawmakers used race as the predominant factor in deciding its boundaries. Texas legislators did this in the hope that a majority Latino district would be more likely to elect a Latino candidate unseating U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, but the plan backfired because he was reelected in the district even after it was drawn as it is today.
An appeal to the Supreme Court by the state is still ongoing. University of Texas law professor Joseph Fishkin believes one of the major implications of this litigation focuses on Austin and centers around the question of whether there was racial intent in the drawing of these lines in such a way that there is not really any congressional district that best represents the people who live in Austin.
“Obviously one extreme view is that any time the party in charge is drawing the maps, that’s probably gerrymandering,” Fishkin said. “And that might be right, but courts are not going to hold that [as justifiable in court]. That’s almost to require an independent redistricting commission, like [what is used in] Arizona or California. But we have a long tradition of politicians choosing their own constituents, and I kind of think it’s a matter of the court trying to decide if we’ve gone too far.”
The Greater Austin area is represented by six congressmen—Doggett, Michael McCaul, Bill Flores, Lamar Smith, Roger Williams and John Carter. All but Doggett are Republican, an outcome some voters argue is a result of gerrymandering and its attempt to weaken the voices of voters, especially minorities.
Racial vs. partisan
Gerrymandering is the practice of using race or party affiliation to draw congressional and state district boundaries in a manner that favors an elected official, Fishkin said.
The practice can be identified in two forms—racial and partisan—and while partisan gerrymandering is nonjusticiable, racial gerrymandering is illegal.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, whose district covers a corner of far South Austin, said the line between partisan identity and racial identity has become blurred.
“What’s happening in Texas, and I think that’s why you’ve found intentional discrimination in the congressional maps as well as the Texas House maps, is that the Republicans are saying that they’re drawing these lines based on party, but in fact it coincides with race in a significant way,” Rodriguez said.
The argument is that Republicans are using party affiliation, or partisan redistricting, as a way to disenfranchise minority voters, Rodriguez added. Although most minorities are known to be Democrats, the end result is the same—discrimination, he said.
Voters might feel powerless
Lisa Goodgame, president of the board of directors for Indivisible Austin, an Austin-based grass-roots political activist group, believes gerrymandering has an indirect effect on voter turnout during statewide elections.
Goodgame said because of the way many of the districts are drawn, it gives voters the impression that their votes are not meaningful.
“Statewide office and [U.S.] senators are not tied to any district, but if you are a voter who feels that your vote for your member of Congress or your state senator or House member doesn’t matter, you may choose to not vote,” Goodgame said. “In that way, those voters are also choosing, perhaps inactively, not to vote for governor or senator or other statewide positions.”
Sherry Cordry, a Nextdoor user and Southwest Austin voter, felt the new District 35 boundaries were drawn to exclude Doggett supporters, an effort she felt was unfair.
“Those of us who support him and who he has faithfully represented were not happy, and we were powerless to do anything about it,” Cordry said.
Robert Sihler, who lives slightly outside Southwest Austin in Driftwood, shared a similar sentiment highlighting that gerrymandering depresses turnout at the polls, in turn empowering extremists. He said assigning this task to nonpartisan government officials could help remedy that issue.
“Were partisan and racial gerrymandering to be outlawed and districts created not by legislators but by officials with less to gain, I seriously doubt you would see any solidly red or solidly blue states flip, but you probably would see more moderation, and thus less polarization and gridlock, as more center-right and center-left candidates would attain office,” Sihler said.
How to fix the problem
State lawmakers have been toying with the idea of creating an independent nonpartisan redistricting committee to handle redistricting every 10 years. Texas Legislatures currently draw their own maps, the leading cause, some believe to the gerrymandering
Rodriguez said he understands the current process but also felt a separate committee of field experts should be the ones to draw the district lines.
“I know Travis County and I know Austin and I know my district better than anyone else,” Rodriguez said. “Just by the fact that I’m elected to that office, that shouldn’t preclude me from doing what I think is best for my constituents in Austin or Travis County or Texas, right? So it’s a fine line there.”
However, having a separate nonpartisan committee could bring in a fresh perspective because they are not directly impacted by the outcome.
“We really should have a separate commission of some kind who are experts in this field, that understand the federal law and what we’re wise to do, that will take a nonpartisan look and say, ‘This is what you’re allowed to do, and this is what you’re not,’” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said he also thought about creating a bipartisan or nonpartisan committee to redraw the maps and send it to the Legislature for final approval.
“There are different ways to do it,” Rodriguez said. “But that’s all because I’m a strong supporter of a knowledgeable, independent commission that can look at demographics, taking off the lens of partisanship and looking strictly at the law, how you can draw these maps, looking at communities of interest, looking at the effects on minority voters, all of these things.”
The problem is that to make that kind of change requires a change to the Texas Constitution, Rodriguez said.
What should a redrawn district look like?
Rodriguez said many citizens get fixated on the shape of District 35, a long skinny, uneven shape that stretches across Central Texas. He said the key to redrawing the district should be about uniting the Travis County voters.
“What’s important is that if you want to talk specifically about Travis County, which I care about, whether it’s congressional or state, is that Travis County not be torn apart into so many different districts,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t serve the people of Travis County very well.”
Rodriguez believes an ideal redrawn district for Austin would have a congressional district that encompasses all of Travis County or at least a large portion of Travis County.
“That we have truly our own congressperson that represents a vast majority of Travis County—that’s my litmus test for Congress and the [state] Senate,” Rodriguez said.