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Houston And Austin Could Gain Texas' 2 New Congressional Seats — But What About Rural Districts?

 The Texas State Capitol Building in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
The Texas State Capitol Building in Austin.

A first draft of the new congressional redistricting maps has been released, showing two new seats in metropolitan areas due to growing populations. Democrats say they show clear attempts to dilute the power of minority voters.

In Texas, the majority-Republican legislature controls the redistricting process. That has Democrats and civil rights groups concerned about partisan gerrymandering designed to dilute the power of minority voters.

The two additional congressional seats that Texas gained out of the 2020 U.S. Census will be in Houston and Austin, according to a draft of redistricting maps released by state lawmakers.

The first draft comes amid a third special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott, specifically focused on the once-in-a-decade process of redistricting.

The maps — which outline 38 congressional districts, as opposed to the current 36 — were proposed by Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Redistricting. They’ll need approval from state lawmakers before they can go into effect.

Since the last census, Texas has boomed.

“We have areas that have just grown dramatically. We've added almost 4 million people over the decade, more than any other state,” explained state demographer Lloyd Potter, who regularly analyzes census data for the legislature.

“Most of those people are being added in the urban and suburban areas of Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, Houston,” Potter said. The state’s metropolitan areas have also seen massive growth among racial minorities.

Gerrymandering Concerns

In Texas, the majority-Republican legislature controls the redistricting process. That has Democrats and civil rights groups concerned about partisan gerrymandering designed to dilute the power of minority voters.

That’s just what these draft congressional maps show, according to Michael Li, senior counsel at the NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

"They (Texas Republicans) aggressively redraw the map to shore up what Republicans have in the current map and eke out some slight gains here and there, primarily by ruthlessly dividing communities of color in places like the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex or in Fort Bend County," Li told Houston Public Media.

In the Austin area, Li says Republicans gave Democrats what they wanted: A seat based in Travis County and includes much of the city of Austin. “So, there's a Democratic seat now in Travis County, but it's what in redistricting terms is called a 'vote sink,’” said Li. “It captures as many Democrats as possible and puts them in the district, and in doing so, they shored up a number of vulnerable (Republican) districts that used to touch parts of Travis County, which in recent years had been very competitive for Democrats and worrying some to Republicans."

Li says Republicans also made aggressive moves in Fort Bend County, which is now one of the country’s most diverse suburban districts.

“Congressional District 22, represented by Troy Nehls, right now includes most of Fort Bend County and a little bit of Brazoria County, but it is a very compact district in the suburbs of Houston,” said Li.

But under the proposed maps, the 22nd district now stretches down into Wharton County and Matagorda County.

Li says that makes it “a much more Republican district and really sort of targets diverse multiracial coalitions that have been increasingly winning power in the Fort Bend area."

Rural Districts Getting Larger

While Austin and Houston stand to gain representation under the draft maps, that’s not the case for what’s been called “The Big Empty” part of the state. Those districts only grow geographically larger as regional population declines.

“States can totally ignore when one community is totally different in terms of economic and geographic interests compared to another community. None of that really has to matter,” said Texas Tech University Political Science Professor Mark McKenzie.

The 2020 U.S. Census found populations grew in West Texas’ bigger cities, like Lubbock and Amarillo, the smaller towns that dot the flatlands lost so many citizens, it doesn’t even out.

McKenzie said that can negatively affect constituents’ representation.

“They’re not your gal or guy up there in Austin. They represent a hodgepodge of people that maybe shouldn’t have all been thrown together.”

Congressional maps are just one set state lawmakers are redrawing as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process. Other political boundaries include voting districts for seats on the State Board of Education and the Texas House and Senate.

A draft map of proposed Texas Senate districts has already drawn calls of partisan gerrymandering. During a hearing over the weekend, Charlotte Riser Harris of Magnolia expressed opposition to the Texas Senate map.

"I am very concerned about the division in our country which is almost rampant in my state and my county,” Riser Harris told Senate lawmakers. “Gerrymandering causes further division and these proposed redistricting maps are gerrymandering at the extreme."

Sarah Self-Walbrick and Becky Fogel contributed to this story.

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