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Could A San Antonio Federal Panel Resolve Texas’ Redistricting Issue After Six Years?

Ryan Poppe

It might be hard to believe, but Texas’s voting maps, those lines that decide where your representative district is and what seat you’re voting for, have been in flux for the past six years.

As heard on Texas Public Radio

Large swaths of the state from Dallas to San Antonio out towards El Paso have had their congressional and state House districts disputed since 2011.  That’s when the state’s Republican-led legislature re-drew the maps. The Texas Constitution requires the state legislature re-draw these districts after each census to make sure these geographic boundaries contain the same amount of people.

Minority advocacy groups did not like those 2011 maps and claimed they were deliberately designed to negatively affect African American and Latino voters. Cue lawsuits, court battles, and then just last month a panel of federal judges ruled three Texas congressional districts were illegal.

So after all these years, it’s not surprising many Texans feel like Lalena Fisher, a graphic designer from Austin. Here’s what she told us:

“I’ve been wondering about the status of Texas’ redistricting. With all the drawn and redrawn maps, the court cases and all the time that has passed, it’s easy to lose track of this fundamental important issue, Fisher says.

To understand where we’re headed, let’s look at where we’ve been. Minority advocacy groups sued the state in response to the maps the Texas legislature approved in 2011.

But the 2012 election was just around the corner, so a federal court implemented its own interim maps.  The legislature liked those maps and officially adopted them during the 2013 legislative session.   

Problem solved, right? No. People like former state-Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher says those maps still intentionally diluted what had been traditional concentrations of Latino and African American voters.

“In this instance they said, ‘well, le'ts draw some districts that look like minority opportunity districts but they’ll never have the opportunity because we can tell from election data that it will never elect a candidate of its choice,” Fisher says.

Cue another lawsuit. Martinez Fisher sits on the board of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and led that 2013 lawsuit against the state. Republican lawmakers disputed the lawsuit’s claims. They said the maps the court had drawn were sufficient and should stand.

Since then the issue has kind of been in limbo. When Texans voted for their statehouse and congressional reps in 2014, they used those maps. The case just sitting in federal court until this past March, that’s when three-judge panel from San Antonio decided Texas congressional redistricting efforts wereintentionally drawn to discriminate against minority voters.

According to Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat who leads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, it happened in a few ways.

“Whether they adopted in some areas of the state a packing technique that packed minorities into districts to dilute their voting strength or they cracked them in a way that you would a wagon wheel, where you take a concentrated community and break it up into multiple districts,” Anchia explains.

Anchia, Fisher and the rest of MALC are still in court, scrambling to neutralize the maps before voters go to the polls in 2018. So what happens now? After last month’s decision by the federal court in San Antonio, they called the state and plaintiff groups to court on April 27th. They’ll try to figure out if there’s a quick way the court could remedy the situation.

If not, they could order the legislature to handle it. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has said he doesn’t see the need for the legislature to get involved until after the release of the next US census in 2020.

“We will be back in session very shortly, in two years and that will be the session that begins to prepare us for the 2021 maps, so I don’t see any move to do that this session,” Patrick says.

House lawmakers agree with him. They voted against dealing with redistricting this year. That’s why Nina Perales, the lead attorney in the current lawsuit, says what happens next will come from the federal court system, not the state Legislature, and they’re running out of time.

“Candidate filing opens in November of 2017. We have  to have lines draw in time for the start of candidate this fall.  And so there’s a lot of time pressure on the court right now to make some decisions before the election schedule overtakes us,” Perales explains.

Otherwise, Perales says, the federal district court in San Antonio will have to delay the start of the 2018 election. As for the disputed 2013 House maps, the court is expected to release its opinion on them by the end of this month or in early May.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Ryan started his radio career in 2002 working for Austin’s News Radio KLBJ-AM as a show producer for the station's organic gardening shows. This slowly evolved into a role as the morning show producer and later as the group’s executive producer.