Matthew Busch

Drawing Power

In a special session for redistricting, expect the GOP to use aggressive gerrymandering to extend the shelf life of its diminishing white base.

by

From the July/August 2021 issue 

An especially atrocious Texas legislative session came to a close at the end of May. Republicans passed radical laws that ban nearly all abortions and allow permitless carry of handguns, and are working to further restrict access to the ballot.

The worst may be still to come. Due to delays with the U.S. Census, lawmakers will reconvene 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 demographics change. In theory, lawmakers redraw state political districts every 10 years to rebalance the scales and ensure adequate representation for voters. In practice, it’s more sinister. 

Since Reconstruction, redistricting in Texas has been wielded by the powers that be—namely conservative Anglos—to entrench, extend, and expand their control and undermine the political clout of the state’s non-white communities. From the conservative Democrats who ran the state for most of the 20th century to the conservative Republicans who have dominated state politics for nearly three decades, the racial rigging of Texas political maps is a time-honored 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 awarded four new congressional districts. Yet Republicans drew three of those new seats in predominantly white areas, full of GOP voters. The party’s mapmakers 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 flurry of lawsuits from civil rights groups that alleged unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, launching a protracted legal battle. After the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) rejected the GOP’s original redistricting plan because it was racially discriminatory, a panel of federal judges redrew the maps for the 2012 elections. Republicans made those maps permanent in the 2013 session. Then, another court found that the 2013 maps maintained the racial discrimination baked into the initial plans.

The fight eventually landed in the United States Supreme Court, where the conservative majority set a nearly impossible legal standard for proving the “discriminatory intent” of lawmakers in redistricting and voting laws. The court had already gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, when justices did away with a provision that required states with a history of racial discrimination, such as Texas, to get new political maps and voting laws approved by the DOJ. Over the past three decades, the DOJ has objected to Texas redistricting plans eight times, including in 2011.  

This means the GOP enters this redistricting cycle with the least legal restraint of its reign, while the political incentives to push the partisan limits of its maps are immense. While the party remains dominant at the state level, the power of its predominantly Anglo, rural base has diminished. The state’s big cities have become increasingly Democratic strongholds; the once ruby-red suburbs now range from fuchsia to lavender. As the state grew and demographics changed this past decade, the strength of the gerrymandered maps faded; Democrats flipped over a dozen legislative and congressional seats in 2018. (The maps were still powerful enough to hold back a big Democratic push for Congress and the Legislature in 2020, however.) 

Now, GOP leaders want to refresh the maps in ways that further extend the political shelf life of their pale, aging, and disproportionately rural electorate while clawing back recent Democratic gains. Thanks to another decade of population growth, the GOP will also have two new congressional seats to play with. 

Civil rights advocates insist those new seats be drawn to ensure the state’s Hispanic, Black, and Asian communities that fueled most of the population growth have commensurate representation in Congress. Dallas-Fort Worth is the state’s only metro without a district where Hispanics could determine the outcome, even as the Latino population there has surged to more than 2 million. 

The big question is how far Republicans are willing to go. They can draw more-cautious lines that give them the best chance at maintaining their lock on Texas for another decade. Or they can go all-in like last time. It’s an enticing path, one that could help Republicans grab back power in Washington, D.C., and effectively end the Biden administration’s ability to govern. 

As the GOP master of dark arts Karl Rove declared in 2010: “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” Tom DeLay, the Republican U.S. House leader from Texas, proved that as he worked in the backrooms of the state Capitol helming Republicans’ effort to redraw the Texas congressional districts in order to bolster the party’s majority in Washington. 

Rove built on that blueprint in 2010 as the GOP took control of state governments—and redistricting—throughout the country, then rigged the maps to ensure Republican dominance for years to come. Republicans are just a few seats shy of reclaiming the majority in the U.S. House. And once again, the path to Republican power in Washington could be secured in the backrooms of the Texas Capitol.