The special session called by Gov. Rick Perry to codify court-drawn interim districts for the Texas House, Texas Senate, and U.S. House has taken an interesting turn. Under pressure to demonstrate that the redistricting process now under way is not just for show en route to a predetermined result, the chairs of the two select committees on redistricting have scheduled a series of field hearings around the state to receive public testimony from residents of affected communities. In addition to Senate hearings in the state capitol on June 6 and June 12 (at 9 a.m. in Room E1.036 each time), the following public hearings have been set:
June 6, Dallas: House Select Committee on Redistricting meets at 2 p.m. at DART Headquarters, First Floor Board Room, 1401 Pacific Ave., 75202
June 7, Corpus Christi: Senate Select Committee meets at 5 p.m. at HRI Conference Center, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, 6300 Ocean Drive, 78412
June 8, Houston: Senate Select Committee meets at 11 a.m. at University of Houston, Michael J. Cemo Hall, 4800 Calhoun Road, 77004
June 10, San Antonio: House Select Committee meets at 2 p.m. at VIA Metro Center, Terry Eskridge Community Room, 1021 San Pedro Avenue, 78212
June 12, Houston: House Select Committee meets at 2 p.m. at University of Houston, Michael J. Cemo Hall, Room 100 D, 4800 Calhoun Road, 77004
Two federal courts have examined the legislature’s 2011 redistricting efforts and found evidence that state lawmakers diluted the potential electoral impact of minority groups protected by the federal Voting Rights Act–even though these groups have accounted for nearly 90 percent of the state’s population growth over the past decade-plus. Gov. Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, both Republicans, want the legislature to put interim court-drawn maps into permanent law in an apparent effort to minimize Democratic Party gains that might result from new court-authored redistricting maps for the Texas House and U.S. House. (It seems all sides are okay with making the interim map for the state Senate’s 31 districts permanent, so Senate districts are not likely to be the topic of much conversation at the remaining hearings.)
Challengers of the legislature’s 2011 efforts (and of the interim court-drawn maps heavily based on the legislature’s handiwork) have cited specific examples of alleged discriminatory impact. In the Texas House, they say the current maps split up minority communities in Dallas County to minimize their sway over multiple state House districts. They see a couple of missed chances to create minority-influenced districts anchored in the Midland-Odessa and Amarillo-Lubbock regions. And they contend that the large concentration of Hispanic voters in Nueces County/Corpus Christi was distributed among districts to avoid creation of an additional Hispanic-dominated state House seat.
Similarly, these plaintiffs assert that congressional districts were carved up to deprive Hispanic voters of a district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and to dilute Hispanic influence over two South Texas districts, one running north from Nueces County (District 27) and the other running west from San Antonio and Bexar County (District 23). Plaintiffs also point to the five-way division of Travis County, where formerly a coalition of Hispanic, African-American, and Anglo voters dominated a district (District 25) anchored in the county. Under current maps, Travis County voters do not predominate in any of the five congressional districts that reach into the county.
The redistricting special session by law must end no later than June 26, but the hearing schedule still leaves a couple of weeks for the legislature to act on whatever the two select redistricting committees propose. There’s also still time for the governor to open up the special session to additional topics. At this point, however, we do not know which if any he might choose to include, despite a great deal of speculation on this score among capitol-watchers in Austin.