Q&A: Austin's redistricting commission chair talks process, challenges of citizen-led mapping effort

As various redistricting processes played out across the country this year—many led by partisan lawmakers or appointed panels—Austin's City Council realignment was overseen by a volunteer group of city residents.

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, or ICRC, is a relatively new addition to Austin's political scene responsible for crafting council boundaries designed to last a decade. The city's second-ever ICRC approved its final map plan Oct. 27, and the new council districts will come into play for next year's local elections.

After the commission certified its new map, ICRC Chair Christina Puentes spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about commission participation, comparing local and state redistricting, and why she believes the independent effort fits for Austin. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your initial interest in local redistricting?

For years I’ve looked at our broken, fractured political system and been thinking, ‘What is the root of the problem? What is it that’s chipping away at Democracy?’ ... Any single answer I think is an oversimplification, but the answers that I have chosen to focus on through the years are, first, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and second, gerrymandering.

When I found out I got on the commission, there wasn’t even a, ‘Can I make this commitment happen?’ I [just said], ‘Yes. I’ll figure it out on the back end.’

What were some of the challenges to completing the process this year?

The pandemic, the crunched timeline of the census data coming out so late, the huge distraction of the ongoing Texas Legislative session just feeling like it’s never going to end, and the redistricting happening at the state level.

Another challenge was soliciting public input, which I guess is generally a challenge with local government. Also just making sure the public understands the distinction between our redistricting process and the traditional redistricting process that we all know and villainize regularly.

We had several people claim that we were gerrymandering, and in some cases even thinking that we had been deliberately sequestering people of color into their own districts. Which is just a misunderstanding of how redistricting works fundamentally. The point is that we have districts that have representation from that community, and you can’t do that if you’re drawing a district that, say, is going from east to west Austin.

How much public input was gathered?

We got several hundred emails. We had a couple hundred people across 20 public forums. It really, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t that many people.

You can’t even say that we heard from 1% of the population about it. But we tried to make the most of the public input that we did receive.

Why do you see this redistricting process as right for Austin?

Redistricting is not rocket science. It’s not that hard. The state just makes it really hard. ... Did it help to have citizen commissioners who were all highly educated? Sure. But I think that with a couple experts in the room, any 14 people who were committed to this cause could have pulled it off.

We know that the vast majority of redistricting processes consider the partisan lean, the Republican or the Democrat. The nice thing about local elections is they’re nonpartisan, so it’s the perfect setup for a redistricting process like ours that’s also nonpartisan.

I walk away from this process definitely believing in a citizen-led redistricting process. Again, as long as it has those guardrails in place, I think it totally works.

Do you think the ICRC process was successful this year?

We learned a lot from the successes and the mistakes of the past commission. There was also a lot of reinventing the wheel, but they had a strong product. They got all the way to the next census without a single lawsuit about the [2013] map, which is quite a contrast to the state of Texas.

We had a great starting point for our own map. ... It would actually be counterproductive to scrap the old map and completely start over. It would be a waste of time because we already have the foundation here. So it was just a matter of adjusting the lines from there. ... That was a critical decision, and I think we made the right choice to go with the old map.

One thing that I’m glad that we did, but I have concerns about moving forward is just, over the years, Austin’s become so unwelcoming to working class people of color especially, that it was challenging to even create opportunity districts that felt like they would lead to opportunity. ... We were able to fulfill that and I’m proud of that. I think that was a good outcome. But I just don’t know how much opportunity there really is.

How would you compare the redistricting work of the ICRC and Texas Legislature?

Some of the biggest contrasts between us is, first, we have an open and transparent process. You can read our notes or watch our public meetings on every conversation the ICRC has had. Second, public input was an enormous driver in our decision-making so citizen participation actually mattered. Three, there were no considerations of partisanship in our redistricting process. And finally, we’re not a body of elected officials. We’re just citizens. I think that makes a huge difference that we don’t have skin in the game.

A hope I have for this commission is that people know about it. Because it’s still impactful regardless, as long as you have those metrics of nonelected officials, no consideration of partisanship, and you can show that. But without the citizen participation, I think that’s kind of like the magic sauce in a way.

Is there anything else about the process worth highlighting?

There was way more interest in the first commission because it was new, because it was put on by a citizen ballot initiative, and so that novelty brought out a lot more civic engagement. And we just did not really see that this time around, and I think that we need to breathe new life into that excitement and the energy for an independent citizens redistricting commission. Because it is special. It is unique in many ways. We were the first city in the country to have this process, and now we’re through the second round of it, and I think that we’re proof that this works.
By Ben Thompson

Austin City Hall Reporter

Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2019 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northeastern University in Boston. After spending more than two years covering in The Woodlands area, he moved to Austin in 2021 to cover City Hall and other news throughout the city.


The Austin Trail of Lights will open nighly from Nov. 28 through Dec. 31. (Courtesy Trail of Lights Foundation)
PHOTOS: Austin Trail of Lights returns to Zilker Park this week

The traditional holiday light show is open from Nov. 28 through New Year's Eve.

Commissioners on Nov. 22 voted to approve a density change to preliminary plans for The Preserve, a neighborhood that city documents said could include 565 single-family homes at the northeast corner of Teel and Panther Creek Parkways. (Courtesy city of Frisco)
CI TEXAS ROUNDUP: Neighborhood near PGA Frisco could see larger lots; ERCOT says Texas power grid ready for expected winter demand and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas in Texas as of Nov. 24.

Local and state officials have made statements welcoming Samsung to Taylor following the announcement that the city will be home to its new $17 billion semiconductor fabrication plant. (Courtesy KXAN)
State, local officials react to Texas governor, Samsung joint announcement

Local and state officials have made statements welcoming Samsung to Taylor following the announcement that the city will be home to its new $17 billion semiconductor fabrication plant. 

Austin City Council will meet for a work session dedicated to housing affordability discussions Nov. 30. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
Austin City Hall notebook: Council set for dive into housing, development after Thanksgiving break

A Nov. 30 work session could see city leaders work through a range of adjustments to city development code, rules and processes.

The new initiative will build the communities capacity to address homelessness along with collecting data from people who have increased access to those in need. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
ECHO, St. David's Foundation launch new program to build a community approach to homelessness

The program aims to address inequities in traditional homelessness response.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sits beside Samsung CEO Dr. Kinam Kim as he announces the company is brining a $17 billion facility to Taylor. (Screnshot via KXAN)
Samsung makes it official: Announcement from Governor's Mansion confirms $17B facility coming to Taylor

Nearly a year after Williamson County officials began pitching Samsung to bring a megafacility to the area, the electronics giant has made it official.

Bill Curci is a chief operating partner for Shuck Me, a seafood restaurant in Fort Worth. (Bailey Lewis/Community Impact Newspaper)
CI TEXAS ROUNDUP: Fort Worth restaurant Shuck Me is fishing- and family-centric; a guide to Houston's 2021 Thanksgiving Day Parade and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas in Texas as of Nov. 23.

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, discusses Thanksgiving safety at a news conference. (Darcy Sprague/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin health authorities remind community of COVID-19 risk ahead of Thanksgiving

Austin health officials warned of a high rate of community transmission ahead of Thanksgiving.

Lizzy and Brandon Simon are running the North Austin location. (Courtesy Lizzy Simon)
Operation Turkey to provide thousands in need with Thanksgiving meals

One local couple is running a North Austin site with the goal of serving 2,500 meals to those in need this Thanksgiving.

Williamson County officials met with Samsung executives at Dell Diamond in January. (Courtesy Williamson County)
For the love of the game: How baseball may have been perfect start for Samsung in Williamson County

The first attempt to bring Samsung to Williamson County relied on a passion for what is considered America’s pastime.

Capital Metro is still deciding if it will put the MetroRail Red Line above or below the North Lamar and Airport boulevards intersection. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Capital Metro moves forward with funding for one of Project Connect’s ‘most complex’ intersections

The North Lamar Boulevard and Airport Boulevard intersection will eventually have the Red, Blue and Orange lines running through it.