Fighting Gerrymandering in the 2019 Texas Legislative Session

In classic Texas legislature fashion, state legislators are up to their old, dirty tricks to undermine democracy—but we’re fighting back with proactive legislation that would create an independent redistricting commission to stop rampant gerrymandering in our state. This guide has more information on the practice of gerrymandering, its extreme use in Texas, and what we can do to stop it.

Gerrymandering in Texas: Where We Are Now

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing electoral district boundaries in distorted shapes in order to favor a specific group and has been part of a long-term strategy used by the GOP to entrench their power. Indeed, most of the gerrymandered districts in the country have been drafted by Republicans. Fundamentally, gerrymandering undermines a fair and representative democracy. We’ll be pushing hard this session to make sure our legislators understand that they must protect democracy by drawing fair district maps, not suppressing votes through intimidation and voter purges.

The process by which district lines are drawn dramatically impacts the fairness of our political process. Gerrymandering allows  career politicians to draw their own district lines to entrench their own power, rather than creating competitive districts that encourage political accountability.

Texas is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. A 2017 analysis found that the Lone Star State had the fifth-highest efficiency gap, or disparity between the number of votes cast for the losing and winning candidates in each district. In theory, if districts are truly competitive, the races are close and each party has roughly the same number of votes cast for losing candidates. That’s… definitely not the case in Texas. A separate analysis by our partner the Brennan Center for Justice also put Texas near the top of states with extreme partisan bias in their district maps.

And it gets worse. Historically, gerrymandering has been used both as a racist weapon to undermine the political power of minority communities and a political weapon to ensure partisan advantage. And often, gerrymandering does both: parties use racial data in a cynical way and have drawn maps at the expense of minority voters in both racial and partisan contexts. Gerrymandering in Texas is the same—politicians draw district lines to undermine the power of black and brown communities.

After Texas last re-drew its district lines in 2011, a group of black and Latinx Texans went all the way to the Supreme Court arguing that the maps were discriminatory. A five-four conservative majority allowed the maps to stand, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent made clear the dangerous implications of the majority’s decision: “The court today does great damage to that right of equal opportunity….Not because it denies the existence of that right, but because it refuses its enforcement.”

It’s time for a change: Texas must move to create an independent redistricting commission to bring fairness to our district maps and end gerrymandering in our state. You can learn more about gerrymandering and redistricting reform in our guide to Fighting Gerrymandering in the States.

Fixing Our Broken Redistricting System

As often happens in a state as big as ours, a few different redistricting bills have been introduced this year. Here are the two bills we’re most excited about:

  • HJR 123/HB 3928 & SJR 52/SB 1537: These are the House and Senate versions of a pair of bills that would amend the Texas constitution to create an independent citizen redistricting for US congressional and state legislative districts. Because it would create a constitutional amendment, this one requires legislative passage and would then have to go to voters for approval in a November 2019 election.

  • HB 3421 creates an independent citizen commission, but only for drawing of US congressional districts. By limiting it to congressional districts only, this version can be adopted via legislative passage and would not require a constitutional amendment.

These bills work in similar ways—the only difference is that HJR 123/HB 3928 & SJR 52/SB 1537 encompass both state and US congressional districts, and HB 3421 would only change the way our US congressional districts are drawn.

How Would This New Commission Work?

An independent redistricting commission takes the power to draw lines away from legislators—who have an inherent conflict of interest in drawing district lines—and gives it to an independent commission without the same bias.

The commission created by these bills would consist of 14 citizens of diverse political affiliation: five Republicans, five Democrats and four voters who have not recently participated in any party’s primary elections. The members of the commission would be chosen by a three-person applicant review panel created by the State Auditor, that itself would consist of diverse members. The commission would only be allowed to draw district maps in open, public hearings, and the maps would be based on input collected from the public. Furthermore, districts would be drawn based on a set of nonpartisan criteria, such as compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution, geographical compactness, and preserving the geographic integrity of cities and counties so that cities and counties would not be divided unnecessarily. (Check out our redistricting explainer to learn more about redistricting criteria.) After the commission draws district lines, they would vote on the maps. Nine “yes” votes allows the maps to take effect, with requirements to ensure partisan balance: three out of five Republicans and Democrats, and three out of four independent voters, must vote yes for the plan to move forward.

State of Play

Fighting for a more fair democracy in Texas is a years-long project, and the advocacy we do this year will soften the ground and start the long-term process of building progressive power at the statehouse. We can also use these bills to counter the harmful narratives of voter fraud, and resulting voter suppression, by offering Texans an alternative: the way to protect our democracy is by expanding access to the ballot, not attacking it.

Constituent Pressure on State Legislators

Indivisibles know that legislators work for them, so constituents hold a lot of power. As is often the case, what you should ask your legislator to do depends on their committee assignments. Legislators on the House Redistricting Committee need pressure to vote these bills out of committee. If your House representative isn’t on the Redistricting Committee, ask them to co-sponsor this legislation—same goes for all senators. A large number of co-sponsors creates buzz and momentum for legislation within the statehouse, and will make it harder for the House Redistricting Committee to ignore the bill.

Local Resolutions to Demonstrate Broad Support

Local resolutions are values statements put forth by a legislative body—they don’t have any statutory impact, but they make a statement about what those legislators believe.

Local resolutions serve a couple of important purposes. First, they can be powerful community education and organizing tools. It’s easier to work with your community (and legislators!) when you have a specific ask or action they can take—for instance, if you hold a community educational event on redistricting reform, it will help folks get excited to know that there’s action happening within their own community. Local resolutions also garner media attention, which further educates the people in your community about an issue.

Second, local resolutions are a great way to demonstrate statewide support and momentum to your state legislators. Just like a lot of co-sponsors will make it harder for the Redistricting Committee to ignore our bills, a slew of local resolutions are similarly hard for state legislators to ignore. This goes for the Committee members but also for your legislator, who might be more likely to co-sponsor the legislation if she sees that the district she represents passed a local resolution supporting it.

What You Can Do

  • If your House representative is on the Redistricting Committee, call and ask them to support the creation of an independent redistricting commission by voting the following bills out of committee: HJR 123/HB 3928 and HB 3421.

  • Ask your representative and your senator to co-sponsor this legislation: HJR 123/HB 3928 and HB 3421 for House reps, and SJR 52/SB 1537 for senators.

  • Work with your local elected officials to pass a local resolution supporting redistricting reform.