Mandy Blott, a psychologist living in East Austin, says she has always been somewhat plugged into politics. Her activism has ebbed and flowed through the years, but after the last presidential election, she decided to double down.
The first thing she did, she says, was look up her member of Congress.
“I wish I could say that I knew who my representative was before the election, but unfortunately, I'm one of the many people who didn’t,” she says. “And it was a complete shock to me.”
It was a shock because Blott learned she lived in a district represented by a Republican: Roger Williams.
Blott says she assumed most of Austin – largely considered the most liberal city in Texas – was represented by Democrats. She says she especially thought her neighborhood sent a Democrat to the Capitol.
“I mean this neighborhood is pretty diverse,” Blott says. “But I think overall, it’s definitely more Democratic-leaning than Republican.”
When Blott looked more closely, she realized the district she’s in includes just a sliver of Austin.
“You know when you look at the map, it’s very clear that our neighborhood doesn’t fit geographically with the rest of the district,” she says.
Williams’ district runs all the way up to Fort Worth, snaking west through rural and more conservative parts of Central Texas. Blott’s neighborhood is in the southernmost tip of the district.
In fact, she lives just one block away from the next congressional district — the lone district held by a Democrat (Lloyd Doggett). Blott says she can see the line breaking her mostly black and Latino neighborhood in half.
“You know, Austin doesn’t actually have a member of Congress who firmly represents Austin,” says Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, which is challenging the state’s congressional map. “In fact, four of the five districts are controlled by Republicans, which is also not very reflective of Austin politics.”
Li argues Republican lawmakers broke up liberal-leaning Austin by drawing districts that also diluted the voting power of minorities. Earlier this year, a federal court ruled the state violated civil rights laws when it drew those maps in 2011.
Li says a lot of the problems with the 2011 maps also exist in the 2013 maps created to replace them. He and lawyers representing a group of Texas voters and political groups will be in federal court in San Antonio this week arguing the maps are still discriminatory.
Besides the fate of political lines, Li says, the three-judge panel could also decide to put the state’s election laws under federal supervision. That would mean Texas has to get federal permission for any new voting rules or maps. The court's decision on that would be a key test of the Voting Rights Act, Li says.
“It’s going to be closely watched around the country,” he says. “Texas yet again – as it has for 40 years – will make redistricting and election law and voting rights history.”
State lawmakers have maintained they drew political lines in Texas that favor Republicans, not lines aimed at hurting minority voters.
"I do think this is mostly about political power," says Brendan Steinhauser, a political strategist in Austin. "I have never heard anyone talk about trying to minimize the voices of minority of voters in order to maximize their own power."
Li says he’s hopeful Texas will have all new maps for the 2018 elections. He says the courts have indicated they plan to move quickly.