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Voting Groups Warn Texas Lawmakers Aren't Making It Easy For People Who Want A Say In Redistricting

The entrance to the Senate chamber at the Texas Capitol is closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gabriel C. Pérez
The entrance to the Senate chamber at the Texas Capitol is closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Voting groups say redistricting plans the Texas Senate laid out in a resolution passed Wednesday do not reasonably accommodate public input.

The resolution says lawmakers "shall give public notice at least 72 hours in advance of a meeting for a regional hearing during the regular session or in the interim between sessions, and 48 hours in advance during a called session." Voting advocates say that is not enough of a heads up.

In Texas, redistricting is a process by which state lawmakers draw maps of political boundaries for various elected positions – including their own seats in the Legislature.

Voters and voting groups have routinely sued state lawmakers for drawing maps they argue disenfranchise certain people. During the last round of redistricting in 2011 and 2013, lawmakers were accused of drawing political boundaries that diminished the political power of people of color, in particular.

As a result of those court battles, federal judges have urged state lawmakers to do a better job of including the public in the redistricting process.

With the state Legislature poised to draw political maps this year, there are concerns lawmakers will not heed that warning.

On Wednesday, senators unanimously approved a resolution that sets up basic procedures and a timeline for the redistricting process.

Allison Riggs, interim co-executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said she's seen draft proposals of the timelines for public input and they are “entirely too short” and don't include an explicit enough process for virtual and written input.

“It’s shocking,” she said. “It’s the same thing as last cycle – with 24 hours' notice, with 48 hours' notice. … That is not enough time.”

In a statement ahead of the vote, a coalition of Texas voting and civil rights groups urged the Senate to “lay out rules and procedures now that will prevent the problems that we saw in 2011 and 2013 from occurring once again."

They also asked lawmakers to create procedures that take the COVID-19 pandemic into account.

Among other things, the groups are asking for virtual hearings after census data is made public, at least seven days to review maps once they are made public, an extension to the amount time given to review amendments to the maps, at least a month's public notice of regional public input hearings and a full disclosure of the data used to draw the maps.

Stephanie Swanson with the League of Women Voters of Texas said her group is “disappointed” with the current plan for redistricting.

“What they are proposing right now hasn’t changed much since 2011,” she said. “So the League feels like the Senate is just repeating what we saw over the last decade.”

Riggs said making sure there is a lot of public input is particularly important because this is the first year lawmakers will be drawing maps without an important part of the Voting Rights Act in place. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court stripped a part of the civil rights era law that would have required the state’s map be cleared by the federal government before being implemented.

“So, this is much more than just an academic exercise of what good government looks like,” she said. “The fate of voters of color and fair representation for them is really at stake.”

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at alopez@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.

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Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016.