Texas residents seek equitable redistricting plan

June 6, 2013 4:50:10 PM PDT
Residents in the Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth areas called on Texas lawmakers Thursday to redraw congressional districts to provide them with more direct representation in Washington.

Political maps drawn by the Republican-dominated Legislature in 2011 divided the state Capitol into five congressional districts, none of them based in Austin. Most of the districts in Dallas and Tarrant counties are divided in such a way that a vast number of voters are in suburban or rural areas.

The Republican majority in the Legislature drew most districts so that Republicans could easily win, except for a handful of seats traditionally held by minorities. Travis County was divided in a way that most considered it an attempt to get rid of Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett, a vocal critic of Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Federal judges in Washington found that those maps were drawn to intentionally discriminate against minorities and a federal court in San Antonio drew temporary districts for the 2012 election intended to fix only the most egregious problems with them. Now the Legislature wants to throw out the original maps and is meeting in special session to make the court-drawn maps permanent.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, complained Thursday that the process of considering the court-drawn maps and public testimony was insincere.

"Texas state leaders are the only state leaders in the country to have enacted discriminatory redistricting (maps) against minority citizens," West said, referring to the Washington court's opinion. "The ruling of intentional discrimination cannot be washed away by holding cynical hearings where the public and minority leaders are asked to speak with certainty that their words will not be heard or acted upon."

West specifically complained about the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the House Redistricting Committee held hearings Thursday. He said U.S. Census data shows that 2.2 million Hispanics and African-Americans live in Dallas and Tarrant counties, and therefore there should be three congressional districts where minorities make up the majority of voters.

Under the interim map, there are two such districts that elected black representatives from the Metroplex, and West said a new map should include a new majority-Latino district. Hispanic groups also want a new majority-Latino district in Houston.

Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks told the House committee that he's "seen state leaders work to undermine the voter strength of African-Americans and Latino citizens of Tarrant County and all across Texas."

"It really doesn't matter if you hold one hearing, five hearings or 20 hearings," Brooks said. "If you end up where you began and pass the congressional and state House plans unchanged, the entire process would have become political theater."

But Fred Moses, the Collin County Republican Party chairman, said the interim maps suit his North Texas community.

"As we adopt and make changes, it only confuses voters and it discourages people to be involved in the process," he said.

At a Senate hearing in Austin, Sakar Chapman Thomas, an African-American resident of Austin, said the congressional map keeps her community from electing someone who represents Travis County's interests.

"By carving it into five pieces, it looks as though it is a concerted effort to silence the voices of minority voters in the district, and in this county, that normally vote Democrat," she told the Senate Redistricting Committee.

Thomas and other witnesses Thursday asked lawmakers to draw a new map where at least one congressional district has most of its residents living in Austin. Minority groups from across the state say the temporary maps didn't fix all the problems with the original maps and that new ones are needed.

The redrawing of the state's political districts takes place every 10 years after the U.S. Census is taken. State lawmakers draw the maps in Texas, and the majority may legally design them to benefit their party. But federal law prohibits redistricting plans that hurt the ability of minorities to elect their candidates.

The special session ends June 26 and if lawmakers do not adopt new plans, federal judges will almost certainly draw new congressional and state House maps for the 2014 election. If they do adopt new maps, it may force minorities to file new lawsuits and start from scratch.

Lawmakers will hold hearings in Houston, Corpus Christi and San Antonio over the next week. All sides appear to have accepted the interim state Senate map.

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