Last month, Phil King, the Republican from Weatherford who chairs the House Committee on Redistricting, kicked off two days of field hearings in Fort Worth with a pledge.
“We want everybody counted,” he told the audience of elected officials and advocates in an auditorium at Tarrant County College’s Trinity River Campus.
“I look forward to a fairer map this cycle,” quipped Vice Chairman Chris Turner, the Democrat from Grand Prairie.
Redistricting is the decennial process of redrawing political maps from congressional to city council. It’s data-driven, based on information from the U.S. Census, and determines a state’s portion of congressional seats, federal allocations, and other resources.
Ideally, it’s nonpartisan.
But “redistricting” has become synonymous with “gerrymandering.” Turner’s statement—ahead of the redistricting process set to take place during the next legislative session in 2021 (after new Census data comes out in 2020)—speaks to how deep the issue runs. Democrats and Republicans have been in court since 2011, when state legislators last redrew the oddly shaped districts.
Gerrymandering is a concept as old as the United States. But recently, it has become a key arguing point for Democrats looking to seize spots in the Texas House and, therefore, gain the upper hand when it comes time to draw maps. President Barack Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder has formed the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to help Democrats with the cause. Republicans are pushing to win back chambers or more seats, as well.
Texas could gain three congressional seats, too, according to state demographer Lloyd B. Potter.
“Texas has gained more people than any other state the past decade,” he said. “Half are babies and half are national and international migrants.”
Texas House district lines will always appear strange, and unnatural. One could be a solid block made abnormal by the addition of a few antennas. Dallas County and other districts across the state look more like a seahorse or a British lion, state Rep. Terry Meza, D-Irving, said at the committee’s hearing. (Her district spanning Irving and Grand Prairie looks like the sea creature; the seat formerly held by Mayor Eric Johnson resembles a lion.)
Meza defeated Republican Rodney Anderson, who is now party chairman, last year for the District 105 seat. She was among the Democrats who flipped 12 seats and have the party nine away from a majority. Though she won, she noted that her district has been sliced up along Irving Boulevard. “They took out a precinct on each side,” the freshman said, and placed the heavily Latino precincts in neighboring, safe Democratic seats.
“They knew the votes wouldn’t make a difference in those races,” she contended.
People are flocking to the major metropolitan areas in the state—Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston—as well as some less urbanized areas like Tyler in East Texas. Over the last decade, Dallas County has grown faster than its neighbors, according to data compiled by the Texas Demographic Center, which Potter leads. Dallas has seen a growth of 366,000 residents since 2010. Neighboring Tarrant County is not far behind, with a projected 335,000 new residents. Collin County takes third, with 257,000 new residents, followed by Denton with 235,000. (Recent Census estimates have shown that Fort Worth growth has started to out-pace us here in Dallas.)
Hispanic residents are the largest growing population in the state. Almost 50 percent of Dallas County’s new residents are Hispanic. In Tarrant, they made up 43 percent of new residents.
Only four of Dallas’ 14 House districts have grown above the estimated ideal district population of 168,000 people: Districts 115, 109, 105, and 114. District 115, located in the northwest part of the county and held by Democrat Julie Johnson, has grown by 4.7 percent since 2010. House District 109, which spans a chunk of southern Dallas currently represented by Democrat Carl Sherman, grew by 3.1 percent. Meza’s 105 also grew by 3.1 percent. District 114 in north central Dallas grew by 1.2 percent; John Turner, a Democrat, holds that seat.
Others saw narrow decreases, many less than one percent. (Mayor Johnson’s former seat, District 100, saw the largest decline at 5.3 percent.)
Before last November’s election, the parties were split in Dallas County. As recently as January 2011, Republicans here held 10 seats and Democrats held six. Meanwhile, currently eight Republicans and three Democrats represent Tarrant County.
Statewide, in 2011 Republicans in the 150-member House held 101 seats to Democrats’ 49. Currently, Republicans hold 82 seats to Democrats’ 65, with three vacancies.
Despite population growth, it’s unlikely that either Dallas or Tarrant counties will lose or gain seats. The exurbs have the most pick-up opportunities. Places like Collin, Denton, and Kaufman counties each could be in line to gain a seat.
Texas Democrats are used to redistricting fights. The controversial, mid-decade redistricting battle set the precedent for the Republicans’ militant politicization of the process, according to Lawrence Wright, a New Yorker staff writer who lives in Austin. In his 2017 piece called “America’s Future is Texas,” he notes that after 2001, Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland and U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay worked together to seize control of the House for their party.
“Texas’s redistricting process has since been replicated in statehouses around the country, creating congressional districts that are practically immune to challenge and giving Republicans an impregnable edge in Washington,” Wright wrote. Craddick told him Texas became a model for how to get control. Consequently, Craddick was overthrown as speaker. DeLay resigned from office and appeared on Dancing with the Stars. The maps ultimately passed but were only finalized last year, thanks to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision taking the judiciary out of the process altogether.
The Court ruled that of the four districts Democrats argued were gerrymandered, only one was drawn to intentionally discriminate. It said, somewhat ironically, that the only discriminatory seat was one safely drawn for a Democrat in Tarrant County. Despite the battle between parties, the High Court had the ultimate say.
Its decision came just in time for the process to begin again. You can count on a few tricks this time, too.