Aside from the ongoing paralysis in Austin due to a lack of a quorum in the Texas House of Representatives, the question around redistricting looms.
The delayed U.S. Census data was received last week, confirming not only that Texas’ population has been booming, but that much of that growth is concentrated in the urban and suburban areas that surround the largest cities.
Now that the state has received the data, lawmakers charged with drawing prospective maps for certain districts can begin that process, taking into account the public input they have received in several regional hearings that have been held over the last year.
The approved maps will determine the likely partisan and ideological makeup for the next decade of elected officials up and down the ballot, which will impact policy outcomes and the lives of everyday Texans.
On paper, this process is supposed to be nonpartisan or apolitical. In practice, it’s anything but.
What is Redistricting & What are the Guidelines?
Every decade, Austin lawmakers engage in the contentious process of redrawing representative district boundaries based on demographic information provided by the federal decennial Census. These districts span the federal to state levels and include the jurisdictions of state senators, state representatives, and U.S. representatives.
The Texas Legislature has a specified number of seats, which include 31 state Senate districts and 150 state House districts, meaning that the boundaries of the districts will change, but not the total number of state lawmakers.
U.S. congressional representation is different. The number of allotted congressional districts changes based on Texas’ share of the overall U.S. population. Based on data received last week, that number has increased from 36 to 38 districts.
Local governments will also participate in the redistricting process by drawing new boundaries for State Board of Education members; state appeals courts; and some local city council districts, county commissioner courts, and school district boards.
Rules that surround the redistricting process currently emanate from both the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, where districts are ultimately required to be equal or near-equal in population and also preserve equal representation regardless of race, color, or the language spoken.
The Politics in Context
The 2020 census data officially puts Texas’ population at 29,145,505, accounting for a 16 percent increase from the population reported in 2010 of more than 25 million.
This increase has afforded Texas two additional congressional seats of the fixed 435 allotted to U.S. Congress, as well as additional representation as a part of the Electoral College.
This redistricting cycle also marks the first time in over a half-century that Texas will be able to go through this process without also having to be subject to additional federal scrutiny under a process formerly known as pre-clearance, meaning there are fewer federal “hoops” to jump through to receive approval of the final maps.
Given the increase of Texas’ population to more than 29 million, this puts the ideal population of legislative districts at 766,987 for U.S. congressional districts, 940,178 for state senate districts, and 194,303 for state house districts.
Per guidelines, when the maps are drawn by lawmakers, House districts have to abide by what is known as the “county line rule,” requiring districts to follow existing county boundaries as much as possible. Senate districts and congressional districts are not subject to this rule.
Can Work Progress Without a Quorum?
The chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, State Rep. Todd Hunter (R–Corpus Christi), gave notice to lawmakers last week that the Texas Legislative Council is currently inputting the census data into the redistricting software used to draw prospective maps. Hunter stated that will be updated and available for use by September 1. He also indicated that once the data is uploaded, the committee will schedule and hold public hearings. Of course, this is assuming they have a quorum by that time; the last two scheduled meetings were canceled due to a lack of quorum.
The Senate Special Committee on Redistricting has not met since March, but the upper chamber does retain a quorum, meaning they would be able to meet to begin considering the data and map propositions.
The Legislature can punt the responsibility of redistricting to an entity named the Legislative Redistricting Board, composed of the lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner (who all happen to be Republicans). If this happens, the Legislature would have to decide to do this by the end of August.
It has widely been assumed that a special legislative session will take place in October, specific to that of the redistricting process.
The Question of the Upcoming Election Cycle
Also affected by the delay in redistricting is what inevitably amounts to a delay in both the candidate filing period and primary elections in 2022.
Gov. Greg Abbott added this issue to the ongoing special session agenda. The Senate has already passed out a bill that would adjust these dates depending on when the overall Legislature completes the redistricting process. Its prospects in the House, however, are unclear due to the ongoing lack of quorum.
As passed the Senate, if the Legislature completes a redistricting plan by November 15, 2021:
- Candidate filing period: November 29 – December 13, 2021
- Primary election date: March 1, 2022
- Primary runoff election date: May 24, 2022
If the Legislature completes a redistricting plan after November 15 but before December 28, 2021:
- Candidate filing period: January 10 – January 24, 2022
- Primary election date: April 5, 2022
- Primary runoff election date: June 21, 2022
If the Legislature completes a redistricting plan after December 28, 2021, but before February 7, 2022:
- Candidate filing period: February 21 – March 7, 2022
- Primary election date: May 24, 2022
- Primary runoff election date: July 26, 2022
What Does it All Mean?
The one constant in this whole process thus far has been uncertainty. A redistricting cycle made more complicated in the wake of a pandemic, coupled with a tumultuous political situation in the Texas House of Representatives, makes the pathway forward extremely unclear.
It almost inevitably means a process that has been historically contentious will not only remain so, but will perhaps get worse.