How Political Parties Gerrymander In Texas And New York : Consider This from NPR Like lawmakers across the country, the Republican majority in Texas is getting ready to redraw the lines that define state and congressional voting districts. Those lines cement the shape of political power in the state for the next decade — and it's perfectly legal for the party in power to draw them to its own advantage.

Texas Tribune reporter James Barragán and Michael Li of the Brennan Center discuss redistricting in Texas, and around the country.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Redistricting: What Happens When The Party With Power Gives Themselves More

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here's a common political story that gets told these days about Texas.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: For decades, Texas has been considered a red state, but Democrats are hopeful this election could be different.

CHANG: Back in 2020, during the presidential election, you may remember hearing about the rapidly changing demographics of Texas, how the population of big cities was exploding....

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Joe Biden making a bid for red state Texas.

CHANG: ...A population that was younger, more diverse...

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: The state is about 40% white, about 40% Hispanic.

CHANG: ...And that could turn the state from a solidly Republican one into a swing state.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Democrats are very hopeful.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: Democrats now believe Texas is within reach.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #6: New polling estimates President Trump and Joe Biden are tied in Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #7: ABC News is now considering Texas as a toss-up state.

CHANG: Well, in the end, Joe Biden lost Texas by 6 points, 46% to 52%. Those numbers might suggest that Texas is nearly split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, but that is not the story you see if you look at Texas at the state government level. You see, in Texas, Republicans have held on to control over the entire state government since 2003. We're talking about the state house, state Senate and the governor's office - total control since 2003. That means, in Texas, people in their mid-30s have never voted in an election that gave Democrats power in the state capital. And that kind of power matters.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #8: The state of Texas has passed what some are calling the most restrictive abortion law in the United States.

CHANG: This year, Republicans in Texas were able to pass a near-total ban on abortion, which is currently being challenged in court. And remember this summer, when Texas Democrats fled the state?

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #9: Democratic lawmakers bolted the state capitol this afternoon.

CHANG: They were trying to delay a controversial new voting law.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #10: The Texas bill would mandate new ID requirements for voting by mail and ban drive-through voting sites and 24-hour voting.

CHANG: But delaying those things was the only play available to Democrats.

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GREG ABBOTT: Election integrity is now law in the state of Texas.

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CHANG: Republicans passed the bill. Governor Greg Abbott signed it into law this month. So yeah, power at the state level matters. And now lawmakers in Texas and other states are about to use that power to their own advantage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Redistricting is oftentimes a process that is abused. You can sort of make elections almost meaningless because of the way that you draw district boundaries.

CHANG: Redistricting. CONSIDER THIS - new lines are being drawn to define congressional and state-level voting districts, which means in states across the country, the party in power can now give itself even more. From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Thursday, September 30.

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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Another reason redistricting is a big deal is that it only happens once every 10 years. That is when, according to a process laid out in the Constitution, states redraw the lines that define congressional and state legislative districts. They do that using data they receive from the U.S. Census. But the process is not only data-driven. You see, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is perfectly legal for the party in power to draw lines according to its own political interest, meaning it can use redistricting to split up voters of the opposing party in ways that make it harder for the opposing party to win majorities from district to district. And while some states do use independent commissions to draw district lines, in many states like Texas, the party in power draws maps that shore up its political power for a decade.

STEPHANIE GOMEZ: So, you know, we got the text. Like, the maps are out. These are the maps that we have been waiting for.

CHANG: Stephanie Gomez is associate director of Common Cause Texas, a nonprofit that works on issues like voting and elections. She was waiting eagerly on Monday when Republican state lawmakers released their first draft of the new congressional map.

GOMEZ: I don't know if I'm allowed to cuss, but it was very like, oh, hell, like, it's - the maps are out. It was just - everyone open up the maps, and let's just - let's take a look at everything.

CHANG: So remember all that population growth we mentioned in Texas? It's been driven almost entirely by people of color. And it's the reason that Texas next year will gain two more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, where seats are allocated by state population.

GOMEZ: Of course, our eyes were like, OK, we're supposed to get two opportunity districts for minorities. Let's see where they end up putting those.

CHANG: When Gomez got a closer look at the new Texas maps, she saw what many Democrats expected and feared. You see, the state's new map would actually reduce the number of congressional districts where voters of color are in the majority, and the map would protect Republican incumbents who might have been vulnerable by packing their districts with even more Trump supporters. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which grades redistricting maps on things like how compact or competitive the districts are, gave the Texas congressional map a flat-out F.

GOMEZ: It's so hard to be a Texan who is fighting for an equitable democracy. Like, we are constantly being met with our deepest, worst fears.

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CHANG: We wanted to talk more about how redistricting is playing out in Texas and across the country, so I spoke to two people following this closely - Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, and James Barragan of The Texas Tribune.

James, can you just give us an example on this map where you think minority voters, Democratic voters would absolutely feel the effects of this most recent redistricting in Texas proposed by the Republicans?

JAMES BARRAGAN: Well, sure, there are certain areas where there's just more people of color. And the one I'm thinking particularly, just because I've covered it for many years, is the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the Hispanic population in Dallas is actually the largest racial or ethnic group in the county. And there was opportunity there for those people to have a candidate of their choice, and there was no such district drawn. And that's important because, particularly in Dallas, like, there's never been a Hispanic elected to Congress from that area, even though it's a significant amount of the population.

CHANG: Michael Li?

BARRAGAN: And, in fact, you know, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, in fact, it took Latinos backwards. They're right now in the 33rd Congressional District, which is represented by Congressman Marc Veasey. The population by citizen voting age is about 48% Latino. Under the new map, it is 42% Latino, and that is because the state drew this long tentacle that stretches up from rural...

CHANG: Interesting.

BARRAGAN: ...Congressional District 6 and takes out a bunch of Latinos in the Irving area and submerges them into this district that Anglo voters control. And that's an example of the cracking that is going on this map. And, you know, cracking and packing are two techniques of redistricting. You know, cracking basically means dividing up communities, whether they're political communities or racial or ethnic communities. Packing means, like, concentrating them, you know, in, like...

CHANG: Right. Cracking is a way to dilute minority voting power. Packing is a way to give them fewer districts.

BARRAGAN: That's a good way to say it, yeah. I think that's right. I mean, both are both are used and both discriminate, you know - and which gets used where depends on what is most useful to a map drawer at any given place.

CHANG: And how are Republicans defending this redistricting plan, James?

BARRAGAN: Well, they're saying that they've drawn it on a race-blind basis and that they've asked the attorney general's office if it complies with the Voting Rights Act, and they've received an affirmative answer. But there's been no transparency about exactly how they're achieving that. And there have been pointed questions from senators and lawmakers of color, and there have been no real answers. I think one of the points that Michael has made is that the map drawers can actually waive that attorney-client privilege to give the public some transparency as to how they're reaching these decisions, and they have chosen not to do so.

CHANG: But let's be very clear, legally speaking, I mean, what we're talking about - partisan gerrymandering, that is redrawing district boundaries that give political advantage to the party in power - it's been going on for generations now. And it is not in and of itself unconstitutional - right? - Michael? I mean, the Supreme Court reinforced that it is not in and of itself unconstitutional back in 2019.

MICHAEL LI: That's right. And the Supreme Court in its 2019 Rucho v. Common Cause decision said that partisan gerrymandering claims brought under the U.S. Constitution can't - are non-judicial political questions, which means that they can't be heard in federal court. But that doesn't mean that there isn't some limit to partisan gerrymandering. Because in another decision, the Supreme Court said if you overuse race as a tool to achieve partisan advantage, that could be a racial gerrymander that violates the Constitution. In other words, you can't use race as a tool that you get - to get to a partisan gerrymander. And, of course, the reality is in Texas, you can't get to a partisan gerrymander without hurting communities of color.

CHANG: Partisanship and race are inextricably intertwined in a state like Texas. Well, we should also point out that this is also the first time that states are redrawing congressional districts since the Supreme Court gutted part of the Voting Rights Act when they eviscerated a provision that had required certain states with a history of racial discrimination and voting to get pre-clearance from the federal government before making any voting changes. That was Shelby County V. Holder back in 2013. James, I'm curious, what do you think? How much can we attribute what's happening in Texas right now to that Supreme Court ruling back in 2013?

BARRAGAN: I think a large portion of it could probably be attributed to it. There's no buffer to protect voters of color from being discriminated against. Of course, there can be litigation, and people who are aggrieved by this can try to get an injunction on these maps. But previously, there had been this requirement that the federal government had to OK these maps, and that was put in place specifically to prevent this kind of discrimination against voters of color. That is no longer the case right now.

LI: And, in fact, the big impact of the loss of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is that it changes the incentives. You know, right now, there's no - nothing that discourages Texas from being as aggressive as it is and then daring courts to strike it down, whereas in the past, Texas had to get these maps pre-approved and couldn't use them unless they were pre-approved. And so that maybe militated behavior a little bit because, you know, you needed to get the maps pre-approved, and so maybe you weren't on your worst behavior. But now there is no cop on the beat, and Texas could do whatever it wants and force litigants to go into court and spend years potentially litigating over what they did.

CHANG: Right. There is no preemptive mechanism to block this kind of voting change before it goes into effect. Well, Democrats have also pushed to use partisan gerrymandering to their advantage in states like Maryland, Illinois and New York. Michael, can you just talk a little bit about how the redistricting process in New York is playing out so far?

LI: Well, what we're seeing around the country is that the process is a lot more partisan than it was last time. You know, even in states that adopted reforms that were designed to make the process more bipartisan, that isn't turning out to be true. Now, that is more true in the states with independent commissions because you have people who are more removed from the political process. But a lot of the bipartisan reforms still have a lot of legislative involvement. And what we're seeing in those states is that people are putting on their team hats and try to maximize advantage for their political party. And, you know, Democrats this cycle are doing it as much as Republicans. In the past, Democrats have been a little asleep at the wheel, but they're awake this year.

CHANG: Well, James, these maps in Texas are not final. Can you just tell us, what's the next step in the process here?

BARRAGAN: Sure. We've started off in the Senate. And, of course, the Senate map has actually moved through committee. The congressional map, we've just had a hearing today, but it will move through the process if it's approved by the Senate, will get sent over to the House. And then the House will go through the same process before sending it over to the governor. I think one complicating factor is that we're in a 30-day special legislative session here in Texas. And so it's not the only issue on our agenda, actually. There's a couple of other issues that are on our agenda. But it does have to go through both chambers before it can be approved by the governor.

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CHANG: That was Michael Li at the Brennan Center for Justice and James Barragan of The Texas Tribune. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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