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The Texas Gerrymandering Trial Could Change All of America

Graphic by Lia Kantrowitz

Why you should care that a fight over congressional districts in the Lone Star State—federal judges called the current setup unfair to people of color—is back in court.

Hey, fellow non-Texan! What if I told you that three federal judges in San Antonio, Texas are weighing arguments about racial bias in the creation of three congressional districts, and that the case has the potential to seriously impact America’s ongoing political power struggle at the national level?

Well, you’d probably believe me. But you might not know why the Texas Gerrymandering Case is such a big deal. How would these rootin’ tootin’ districts in the Lone Star State impact me here in Portland/Duluth/Biloxi? I hear some of you asking, like a character in a Schoolhouse Rock cartoon. After all, I don’t even live in Texas!

OK, here goes.

A little on gerrymandering, which is totally legal:

The trial centers on the notorious practice of Gerrymandering in Texas, so real quick, let’s get that term out of the way first. Gerrymandering is slang for what happens after each US census (every decade), when many congressional districts have to be redrawn based on changes in America’s population. According to the last Census, there was supposed to be one representative for roughly every 711,000 people. But because we don’t like independent commissions very much in this country, partisan political operatives employed by elected officials get to do this complicated math and geography in many states. As you can imagine, that process isn’t always fair.

In the image above, you can see how constituencies with a clear partisan bias can be divided in such a way that their votes become almost worthless. This can happen because likely voters of one party are consciously being peppered into a bunch of districts, such that they’ll never form a majority voting bloc (which is called "cracking"). Other times, voters get bunched into their own little voting enclave where they have an insanely huge majority but don’t have an impact on other districts (this is called "packing").

All of this is legal—so long as it’s not explicitly done on the basis of race.

Here’s what Texas did that a federal court decided is not legal:

Image via Nationalatlas.gov/Wikimedia Commons

What was not legal, according to a 2-1 March ruling by a panel of three federal judges, is the method Texas used to draw its districts after the 2010 census. Essentially, the judges found it was done in a discriminatory way that deliberately diluted the voting power of minorities as much as possible. In April, the court also found that Texas had deliberately carved up state legislative districts (as opposed to congressional ones) in such a way that it diluted the voting power of Hispanics, which placed it in violation of the Voting Rights Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

It’s important to note here that this has been a legal issue for a while: Before the 2012 elections, a federal court sketched out some new districts in response to civil rights complaints, and the state government started using them officially in 2013. With those in place, everything seemed to be chugging along nicely for the Republican-dominated state government, until this spring.

That’s when the judges on the aforementioned panel ruled that the official boundaries in place were deliberately unfair to people of color. That included District 35 (see above), a bizarre, long-necked beast that encompasses minority neighborhoods in San Antonio and Austin. "The Court finds that this evidence persuasively demonstrates that mapdrawers intentionally packed and cracked on the basis of race (using race as a proxy for voting behavior) with the intent to dilute minority voting strength," the majority wrote.

What’s being argued in court:

The two sides in this arguments over the past week have been as follows:

The State of Texas is pointing out that the current map being used in elections is not the one that the panel of judges ruled was discriminatory, but a second one, drawn by the courts—the "interim" map. So, the thinking goes, there’s no harm in continuing to use it.

The plaintiffs, who brought the civil rights case to the courts in the first place, say the tweaks the courts made to the district maps didn’t erase the damage done to minorities. The result, the plaintiffs are arguing, is that people of color—who represent a huge economic force in Texas and are already a majority in the state—aren’t adequately represented in electoral politics.

Why this matters so much to Texas:

If the court’s next ruling says Texas has to redraw these three districts, the other congressional terrain nearby could be thrown out of whack as well. That effect could explode outward, forcing an unknown number of changes to the Texas electoral map.

And while everyone knows Texas is a red state—both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship are Republican—it’s increasingly clear that it should probably be purple. According to a CBS/YouGov poll just before the 2016 election, 23 percent of Texans identified with the label "strong Democrat" compared to 25 percent who said "strong Republican." The final Trump/Clinton tally was about 52 percent to 43 percent—a solid win for Trump, but nothing like the 65-to-29 blow-out next door in Oklahoma. And it’s also kind of a mystery how Fort Worth manages to be one of the only densely-populated metropolitan areas in the US run by Republicans.

So a new map that enfranchised minorities could have a major effect on the partisan balance of power in the state. As the Washington Post pointed out, of the top five American cities for explosive growth, four are in Texas, and that explosion is largely due to a surge in the Hispanic population.

"What was done here was to knowingly and intentionally impede the opportunity for African Americans and Latinos to elect candidates of their choice," Allan Lichtman, a social scientist at American University testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs, said in court this week. "What we see here is intentional discrimination."

Why this may matter to Americans in general, and possibly even you personally:

No matter how the judges rule, this process could conceivably go all the way to the US Supreme Court, where gerrymandering has been at the center of lots of big, precedent-setting decisions lately. In June, the justices agreed to hear a case on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. Race was at issue in May when the justices upheld a lower court’s rejection of two districts in North Carolina. Plus, this all relates to a larger push for the voting rights of non-whites that gained new urgency after the Supreme Court tossed out a key feature of the Voting Rights Act mandating federal oversight of state voting laws in 2013.

But the impact could be even more immediate. According to the Associated Press, Texas gives the US House of Representatives a bigger "gerrymandering bump" than any other state. Per the AP’s number-crunching, gerrymandering allowed House Republicans to occupy as many as 22 seats they otherwise wouldn’t have, and "nearly four" of those seats are in Texas.

Texas currently has 25 Republican members of Congress, and just 11 Democrats. If the judges say Texas has to redraw these three districts, and the new ones result in the election of more Democrats in 2018, that could provide a real boost for the national Democratic Party’s overall fate in the midterms—an election in which they have a fighting chance of taking back the House. Hell, even one new Texas Democrat making it to DC would be a big deal.

But try not to despair if you’re a Republican, or get your hopes up too much if you’re a Democrat who wants to see Donald Trump get impeached. There’s a whole lot of "if" going on here, and at the end of the day, this is Texas we’re talking about.

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