Texas Redistricting is not Done, With Primary Days Away
As 36 districts worth of Texas congressional candidates finish campaigning for the state's May 29 primary, the cacophony of politics has obscured a key issue in the Lone Star State: Its redistricting process is not yet done.
Next Tuesday's primary will take place under interim congressional maps ordered by a federal court in San Antonio earlier this year. But the San Antonio court's congressional boundaries are interim, and the map passed by the Texas legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry last year is still hung up in the "preclearance" process in a Washington, D.C. district court with no sign of when a decision might come down.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Texas is one of eight states with a history of discrimination that submit congressional redistricting proposals to either the Justice Department or a D.C. court before they can take effect. Most states submit their plans to the attorney general; not wanting to put its Republican-drawn plans in the hands of the Obama administration, Texas chose a trial in D.C. A three-judge panel heard the case in January and February, and by some accounts was expected to rule as early as the second week of February, to give Texas candidates time to file and figure out their districts.
Almost four months later, we're still waiting, and candidates are running under the interim maps, which the San Antonio court based on the Texas legislature's maps. The reasons for the delay are murky, and manifold.
"The answer is, I think, nobody knows," says Texas redistricting expert Michael Li. One factor might be the new state legislative lines, which were included in the same case as the congressional map, and another is the care that goes into voting decisions. "If you look at their Voting Rights Act opinions, a lot have been 100-, 170-page opinions," Li said. "They're also aware of controversy now about the constitutionality of the VRA, so I think they're taking their time."
Since a federal court made the interim maps, they don't need to be precleared; Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act only applies to states for congressional redistricting. So the maps are set for this year. That is not quite case for the rest of the decade.
The main obstacle for the Texas legislature's congressional plan centered in Austin, where Travis County was split five ways and some groups argued that the division intentionally kept a significant minority population from being able to elect a "candidate of choice." If the court denies preclearance based on that argument, congressional candidates running in the area could find themselves running in brand new districts again next cycle, repeating the scramble for seats as versions of interim maps changed earlier this cycle.
For example, Michael Williams and Roger Williams, two Republicans running in the new 25th District in the western part of Travis County, bounced back and forth between that district and another to the north as different maps came into effect last year. Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who's from Austin and represents the old 25th District, is running this year in the 35th District, which stretches down to San Antonio. Over almost two decades in Congress, Doggett has been a regular target in redistricting. "I've been in, I think, three or four different districts in the last dozen years," Doggett said.
According to Li, the preclearance decision could be coming any day now -- it's possible, cynics say, that the judges were waiting for Texas's primary to avoid controversy about whether to install yet another version of maps this year. If the judges deny preclearance, some candidates could end up fighting this cycle for territory that won't be there in the next one.