What to expect from the special session
From the July / August 2021 issue
A particularly atrocious Texas legislative session ended in late May. Republicans have passed sweeping laws that ban nearly all abortions and allow the carrying of handguns without a permit, and are working to further restrict access to the ballot.
Perhaps the worst is yet to come. Due to delays with the U.S. census, lawmakers will meet again this fall for a special session to redraw the state’s political districts.
Over the course of a decade, people move, population ebbs and flows and demographic changes. In theory, lawmakers redesign the state’s political constituencies every 10 years to rebalance the scales and ensure adequate voter representation. In practice, it is more sinister.
Since the reconstruction, the redistribution in Texas has been exercised by the powers that be – namely the Anglo-Saxon conservatives – to strengthen, extend and extend their control and to undermine the political clout of the non-white communities in the state. From conservative Democrats who ruled the state for most of the 20th century to conservative Republicans who dominated state politics for nearly three decades, the racial rigging of Texas political cards has a centuries-old tradition.
In 2011, the Republican-controlled legislature drew aggressively gerrymandered maps that maximized their power by deliberately discriminating against minority communities. The state’s population had grown by more than 4 million – almost entirely people of color – during the 2000s, and Texas was in turn assigned four new Congressional Districts. Yet Republicans drew three of these new seats to predominantly white areas full of GOP voters. Party cartographers largely excluded Democratic lawmakers from the process as they drew districts that strategically diluted the electoral power of black and Hispanic voters.
The 2011 maps sparked a wave of lawsuits from civil rights groups who alleged unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, starting a long legal battle. After the US Department of Justice (DOJ) rejected the GOP’s original redistribution plan because it was racially discriminatory, a panel of federal judges redrawn the cards for the 2012 election. Republicans made those cards permanent in the 2013 session. Then, another tribunal found that the 2013 cards kept racial discrimination built into the original plans.
The fight eventually landed in the US Supreme Court, where the Conservative majority set an almost impossible legal standard to prove lawmakers’ “discriminatory intent” in redistribution and voting laws. The court had previously gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, when judges struck down a provision that required states with a history of racial discrimination, such as Texas, to have new political maps and voting laws approved by the DOJ. Over the past three decades, the DOJ has opposed Texas redistribution plans eight times, including in 2011.
This means that the GOP enters this cycle of redistribution with the slightest legal restriction on its rule, while the political incentives to push the partisan boundaries of its cards are immense. While the party remains dominant at the state level, the power of its predominantly Anglo-Saxon rural base has diminished. The state’s major cities have increasingly become democratic strongholds; the once ruby red suburbs now range from fuchsia to lavender. As the state grew and demographics changed over the past decade, the strength of the gerrymandered maps waned; Democrats toppled a dozen legislative and parliamentary seats in 2018. (However, the cards were still powerful enough to dampen a big Democratic push for Congress and the legislature in 2020.)
Now GOP leaders want to refresh the cards in a way that will extend the political life of their disproportionately pale, aging, rural electorate while clawing back recent Democratic gains. Thanks to another decade of population growth, the GOP will also have two new seats in Congress to play with.
Civil rights activists are insisting that these new seats be drawn to ensure that the state’s Hispanic, black and Asian communities, which have fueled most of the population growth, have proportional representation in Congress. Dallas-Fort Worth is the only subway in the state without a district where Hispanics could determine the outcome, even though the Latin American population has grown to over 2 million.
The big question is how far the Republicans are willing to go. They can draw more careful lines that give them the best chance of maintaining their foreclosure on Texas for another decade. Or they can go all-in like last time. It’s a tantalizing path, one that could help Republicans regain power in Washington, DC, and effectively end the Biden administration’s ability to govern.
As GOP dark arts master Karl Rove said in 2010: “Whoever controls the redistribution can control Congress. Tom DeLay, the Republican leader of the Texas House of Representatives, proved it as he worked behind the scenes at the State Capitol, leading Republicans’ efforts to redesign the congressional districts of Texas to strengthen the majority of the party in Washington.
Rove leaned on that plan in 2010 when the GOP took control of state governments – and redistributions – across the country, then rigged the cards to secure Republican dominance for years to come. Republicans are only a few seats away from reclaiming a majority in the US House. And again, the path to Republican power in Washington could be secured behind the scenes on the Texas Capitol.