AUSTIN – Gov. Greg Abbott signed off on new Texas voting maps this week, cementing a GOP stronghold on the rapidly-diversifying state. Now, local county officials must also redraw their lines.
County commissioners must approve their maps by early November to hit current deadlines, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. While the process is typically much easier as there are only a handful of precincts in each county and maps only need a majority approval by the county commissioners, Jones added that there are some areas in the state that could see several changes.
“Every county draws its own maps for county commissioners,” Jones said. “So what we see at the county level is what we saw replicated in Austin — whichever party holds the levers of power can draw tailor-made maps to help it and hurt the other party.”
The Cooke County Commissioners Court meets Friday at 3 p.m. to begin that process. The court will confer via Zoom with attorneys and discuss scheduling a public hearing.
Cooke County is heavily Republican and may not see much of an adjustment. It will be grouped with Denton and a handful of other counties in the state Senate and House – also in heavily Republican districts – but the U.S. House seat is expected to flip back to Republican Michael Burgess’s 26th District. Ronnie Jackson’s 13th U.S. House District is shrinking away from its eastern end and will be more centered around Wichita Falls and Amarillo.
New census, new lines
The redistricting lines are drawn following data from the decennial census. Since 2010 census, Texas gained four million new residents reaching nearly 30 million in 2020.
Jones said the new state maps allow for the GOP to secure 18 of 31 state Senate seats with the potential to gain a 19th seat and secures about 80 of 150 state House seats with the potential take several more, depending on political waves during upcoming elections.
While Jones said that the impact of these maps at the county level likely will be minimal, only requiring a change in who to communicate with at the state level, there are some county-level battles.
Jones said Harris County, where Houston is located, has witnessed extreme partisan gerrymandering, but instead in favor of Democrats.
“The only time that you see this extreme partisan gerrymanders are generally in those counties that are competitive, where where one party has the ability to win at least one or two of the county commissioner seats,” he said.
At the state level, GOP leaders who hold majority power and led the redistricting process have been accused of racial gerrymandering in order to create stronger Republican districts. This has led to several lawsuits including one by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The lawsuit claims that the maps are unconstitutional as they dilute the voices of Hispanic and Black neighborhoods, something that could violate the Voting Rights Act.
Latinos made up about half of the four million newly gained residents in Texas, and most of the new residents are non-white, according to census data.
Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican and chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, said the committee did not look at racial data when redrawing the maps, and GOP lawmakers continue to insist the lines were drawn “race blind.”
After a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, federal officials no longer need to approve redistricting in Texas. With this, the maps will stand unless a court determines otherwise and the new boundaries could remain in place until the next census, Jones said.
Jones added that while the extreme partisan gerrymandering on the state maps appear racially driven, he believes the maps were not done purposefully with the goal of reducing the voices of Latinos and African Americans. Instead, he believes it was a byproduct of the Republic party seeking stronger control.
“The goal of Republicans is just to elect more Republicans, but as a byproduct of that you are reducing the ability of African Americans and Latinos to elect candidates of their choice,” Jones said.
Josh Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project, added that gerrymandering in favor of either party comes with the territory of the current process, and that in the final maps, incumbent Democrats also gained safer seats.
“In Texas and many other states, we accept partisans and elected officials to choose their voters, and if you're going to allow partisans to choose their voters, they're going to create maps that benefit them,” he said. “The thing that people need to understand is that that's the process we've chosen to accept.”
Editor Mike Eads contributed to this report.