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Denton County Redistricting Plan Draws Criticism

Aaron Jacobs
distributed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 license
The Denton County Courthouse

Denton County voters may find themselves voting in new districts for members of the county commissioners court next year. The Denton County Commissioners Court is planning to redraw their districts this summer. Commissioners say it’s an effort to make sure their precincts are equal in this fast-growing county, but critics of the plan says it’s being rushed unnecessarily and will have a discriminatory effect.

Denton County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the country since it last redrew the boundaries for elected county officials in 2011, but that growth has not been evenly spread across the county. Commissioner Hugh Coleman said this has left commissioners’ precincts out of whack. Coleman represents a district that covers the northern chunk of the county, and he said his precinct has grown at a faster clip than others. 

Credit Denton County Commissioners Court
Denton County Commissioner Hugh Coleman

“You can just see the tremendous growth that has impacted the northern part of Denton County, as opposed to the districts that are in the southern area, where they don’t have as much rural open space, which is subject for development,” Coleman said.

That uneven growth, Coleman said, has left him struggling to represent people while other commissioners have too few residents. He has wanted to redraw the precincts since 2016, he said, as an issue of fairness. Equally apportioned districts are more manageable for the commissioners, he said, and make the distribution of county resources fairer.  But Coleman said he has only recently been able to find a majority on the court to support the idea.

The Texas constitution gives county commissioners courts the responsibility to draw county-level districts that are equitably apportioned. It instructs them to do so when necessary.

Redistricting is not required to be tied directly to the once-a-decade federal census. But typically, counties have waited to get census data. The census is an actual headcount of pretty much everybody in the country.

However, when counties choose to redraw districts without census data, they are forced to use other, less reliable data. That’s what Denton County is doing, and it’s generated strong criticism from a cadre of local residents, mostly Democrats, who have started turning up for commissioner court meetings to plead with the all Republican commissioner court to abandon the redistricting plan.

“I think they’re trying to gain an advantage at the ballot box, and this is the approach that they’re doing it,” said Will Fisher, a lawyer and Flower Mound resident who ran for congress last year.

Fisher points to a recent history of Republicans using redistricting across the country to tip the scales in their favor. In Texas in 2011, when Republican leaders in the legislature drew new statehouse and congressional district maps, they clustered as many Democrats into as few districts as possible in order to help Republicans win as many districts as possible. Those maps were under litigation for most of a decade.

Commissioner Coleman said the fears of redistricting critics in Denton County are unfounded.

“I don’t necessarily think because somebody’s a Democrat that they always have malice of forethought and everything they do is designed not to something that’s fair but to screw the other side,” Coleman said. “I hope and wish that they’d give us the benefit of the doubt.”

But Angie Cadena, chair of the Democratic Party in Denton County,  said even if the commissioners don’t want to gerrymander their districts, their data will.

That’s because the county is relying on a handful of population estimates and using voter registration data to extrapolate how many people are in each voting precinct. But voter registration isn’t a good proxy for population, Cadena said, because registration rates aren’t equal from community to community, which will lead to an undercount among communities of color.

“I’m worried about the impact on those types of populations. And it’s going to be really harsh,” Cadena said.  

Latinos have the lowest voter registration rates in Texas. Latinos, statistically, have larger families, but because kids can’t be registered to vote, they won’t be counted. And Latinos who are registered vote less frequently than other groups, as a whole, so they’re less likely to have updated voter registration data.

The commissioners court has asked the county Democratic and Republican parties to weigh in on the plan, as well as civil rights groups like LULAC and the NAACP. But Cadena considers it a token gesture, and said she wants to see a nonpartisan, independent commission draw the lines for elected officials’ districts.

“Yes, I am the Democratic Party chair. I want Democrats to win. But I want it to be fair,” Cadena said. "We should not be redistricted based on parties.”

Still, opponents of the redistricting plan have little power to stop commissioners from drawing new maps this summer. Cadena said she will keep working to educate people about the problems with the data. Will Fisher said he’ll continue going to the commissioner court to plead his case every week. Barring that, he says a legal challenge may be necessary.

“I’m not convinced it’s a done deal,” says Will Fisher. “I think that cooler heads can prevail, that less partisan heads can prevail, and this thing can be pulled back.”

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.