AUSTIN — Both the state House and Senate gaveled in on Monday for the third special session this year, as lawmakers prepare to go to battle over the district lines that will determine their own political futures.
The main agenda item they're tasked with is redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries for state districts, Congress, and the Texas Board of Education.
“Redistricting is the most political of political exercises because it's about politicians themselves deciding on what the rules of the game are going to be for them going forward. It has one of the most direct, you know, lines of effect when you think about the consequences of their reelection," said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project.
Redistricting is based on the latest census data, which shows people of color fueled 95% of Texas’ population growth over the past decade, but Democrats say that’s not reflected in the proposed map. However, Republicans want to tighten their grip on the levers of power, and as the majority, they have every advantage to do so.
The Senate Redistricting Committee released the first draft of the state Senate district map this weekend, which shows that Republicans are drawing the lines to make their existing seats safer, and increase the number of districts they are likely to win.
“The current Senate maps had 16 districts where Trump's vote exceeded that of Biden in the last presidential election, the new maps include 19 seats where the Trump vote outstrips the Biden vote," said Blank.
Democrats say the new map further disenfranchises voters of color. Currently of the state’s 31 senate districts, 21 have a white majority, seven have a Hispanic majority, only one is primarily Black and two have no racial majority. The new map’s racial breakdown is roughly the same, except for one less majority white district and one more district with no racial majority.
“Having a state in which nearly equal shares of the population are white and Hispanic, if only seven of the state senate districts have a majority Hispanic population, it’s going to lead many to question whether these maps are being drawn due to partisan considerations or racial considerations," said Blank.
Democrats are particularly upset over Senate District 10, which is represented by state Sen. Beverly Powell.
“The Senate map that was released over the weekend is a complete discriminatory attack on communities of color, especially in Tarrant County which I have the privilege of representing. It slices and dices minority communities, African American and Hispanic populations in Tarrant County, for partisan gain. It's completely unacceptable," said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington.
The population of voters of color in District 10 has swelled in the last ten years, but the new map gives Republicans an advantage by extending the district into the more right-leaning Parker and Johnson counties.
It’s been a swing district for years, represented by a Democrat from 2009-2015, then a Republican from 2015 until 2019 when Democrat Powell won the seat. Powell released a statement over the weekend, saying in part, “The proposed state Senate map is a direct assault on the voting rights of minority citizens in Senate District 10 and, if adopted, it would be an act of intentional discrimination."
“It looks to me like it has been erased from the standpoint of it being a seat that a Democrat can win. It looks like minority populations have been fragmented, and that their voice has been essentially extinguished," said state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Fort Worth.
Republicans disagree and say the process of drawing the maps has been fair.
“I believe that it was the chair's intended goal and stated goal to conform with all state and federal laws, and I see no sign that Chair Huffman is not leading us in the right direction," said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.
Bettencourt sits on the Senate’s redistricting committee and says Texans can give their input on the proposed maps in public hearings.
“Everybody take a look at the map and then wait for the hearings to actually start, because then I think we can get some, some good dialogue going between really everyone in Texas," said Bettencourt.
For Democrats, public testimony will also be important for the maps’ inevitable future legal challenges.
“We’re going to work to establish a clear record, in the event that the legislature does pass plans that don't meet muster, with respect to the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution, then we’ll be ready to go to court," said Turner. “We want to work with our Republican colleagues to draw fair maps, but in the event that the maps are again discriminatory as they were 10 years ago, you can bet there will be legal action.”
This all comes as a recent Dallas Morning News and UT Tyler Poll shows most Texans think redistricting should be handled outside of the legislature with 36% of voters believe an independent commission should be tasked with the job, while just 20% want the legislature to do it.
The Senate also released their proposed map for the Texas Board of Education districts on Monday. The House will soon release its draft map of state House districts, and lawmakers will draw up congressional boundaries in the coming weeks as well.
Click the video link above to watch our full interview with Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, who’s filed a lawsuit arguing redrawing political districts in this special session violates the Texas Constitution.