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Legislature gears up to redraw voting districts

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Posted: Sunday, March 6, 2011 12:00 pm | Updated: 10:09 am, Mon Feb 17, 2014.

By Rose L. Thayer

Killeen Daily Herald

On the basic level, it sounds simple.

Redistricting is dividing the state into equal districts based on the population to provide fair representation in government.

But history shows it's not that simple.

"Redistricting is a long, drawn-out process with people fighting for individual interests before party interests," said Janet Adamski, a political science professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. "If you're confused, then you're right on track."

And the state doesn't do it once. The Texas Legislature has to redistrict for the state House of Representatives, state Senate, the U.S. Congress and the State Board of Education while following very specific guidelines and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now throw in party interests and individual interests of politicians.

"We know we've done a good job when no one's too happy about it," Adamski said.

Where do the numbers come from?

Every 10 years when the new census numbers come out, redistricting begins. Each state handles its own, and if the state is unable to do so, the U.S. Supreme Court steps in - which happened in Texas during the last redistricting process after the 2000 Census.

The state has a certain number of seats in both the U.S. Congress and in the state Legislature's two houses. To determine the "ideal district population" attached to each seat, the Legislature takes the population and divides it by the number of seats available.

Texas saw a lot of growth during the last 10 years, gaining four new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The state grew by 20 percent to more than 25 million residents.

Bell County exceeded the pace of the state's growth, adding 30 percent to its population in 10 years.

Most major cities within the state grew substantially - particularly along the Interstate 35 corridor and in Houston - while rural areas in West Texas, the Panhandle and East Texas thinned out.

Killeen's state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock is a member of the Texas House Redistricting Committee. The Republican legislator said what's interesting about the growth the state saw was it wasn't necessarily in urban cores, but on the outer fringes of cities. This means that representatives in urban areas will have smaller, but more populous districts with a focused voice, while legislators in rural areas will have to represent more land with a wider range of local issues.

"We will see significant shifts in the map overall," Aycock said. "The state will lose influence of rural areas, simply because (redistricting) is done by people, not acres."

Aycock's district, which contains Lampasas and Burnet counties and the small portion of Bell County around Killeen, grew to the point that he will have to lose 28,000 people when his district is redrawn this year. Meanwhile, Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, has a district containing Coryell County and six other counties north of it, but needs to gain 18,000 people to reach his ideal district population.

More than just numbers

There are many other guidelines that the Legislature must take into consideration when drawing district lines. For each body that must be redistricted, there are variations to the guidelines, but overall, the populations have to be as equal as possible and the aim is to keep counties whole when possible.

If a county has more than the ideal population, the extra population must be kept together in whatever district it is moved to, according to state law. Counties smaller than the ideal population must be kept whole.

Texas also falls under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects the voting rights of minorities. This means that Texas must submit its Congressional District maps to the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for preclearance to assure the voting voice of minority populations isn't unfairly diluted during redistricting.

This provision is important this year because Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of Texas' overall growth this decade, now making up 38 percent of the state's population, according to Census data. The change was not as dramatic in Bell County, but it could still affect how the lines here are drawn.

This will also be the first time since the Voting Rights Act passed that the Justice Department will be in Democratic hands during the redistricting process.

"Once you consider numbers, legal guidelines and constitutional restraints, it's really unpredictable how it will look," Aycock said.

Who draws the lines

The Legislature has a House and a Senate committee dedicated to redistricting. Members must decide among themselves by May 30 where the lines should be drawn, and then submit a map as a bill on the floor of each house, where it will be voted on like any other bill.

Following adoption, the bill must be approved by Gov. Rick Perry. If he approves, the maps continue on for federal approval. If the governor disapproves, the Legislative Redistricting Board must meet. If the governor doesn't approve of the congressional or board of education districts, he may call a special session, or send it up to state or federal courts.

If anyone feels that any of these guidelines have been violated by approved bills, they may file a lawsuit.

Talk about reality TV

In 2001, the Texas Legislature deadlocked on congressional redistricting and state Democrats boycotted the process, traveling as far as New Mexico to avoid it, leaving the federal courts to redraw all the districts.

After Republicans took the state House a year later, the party took another shot at redistricting. Coming two years after the Census figures were released, Republican U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay helped push through a redistricting plan that gave the Republicans several new seats in Congress.

DeLay was convicted in 2010 on money laundering and conspiracy charges stemming from his role in the 2002 elections that paved the way for the controversial 2003 re-map.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that new lines be drawn in several districts to protect the rights of Hispanic voters in South Texas.

The Bell Freedom Foundation hosted a lecture in January to discuss the drama of Texas' last attempt at redistricting.

"I tell people to take a look because it's the best reality show in town, and you're about to see it again," said Dave Palmer, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

What to expect

The committees in both chambers of the Legislature have yet to meet on redistricting, but state Rep. Ralph Sheffield, R-Temple, said the house committee chairman has already asked members to try to work with their neighbors. He has already begun to do so.

Sheffield shares Bell County with Aycock, and while Census data shows the population of Sheffield's district stayed stable enough that he could keep his district as is, Aycock's needs to shed more than 28,000 people.

"My preference is to keep Bell County with Lampasas," Aycock said. "Sheffield would keep East Bell County. Sheffield and I cordially agree."

Miller's district stretches north from nearby Coryell County and is short about 18,000 people. He said it is possible that he could pick up Burnet County, or maybe some other rural area.

Texas Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, a senior member of the Senate Redistricting Committee, said his district is the perfect size to stay the same. His district stretches from Bell County all the way up to Abilene.

Some reports have speculated that Fraser may lose the north part of his district, keeping Central Texas, to compensate for western districts that have lost population. This would draw Abilene out of his constituency.

He disagrees.

"I insist on keeping Abilene. And I think it's in the interest of them to stay together because of Fort Hood and (Dyess) Air Force Base in Abilene," he said. "I think the districts out west are going to move toward El Paso and Big Bend."

He said also wants Coryell County in his district, and believes it could happen.

Congressional districts

At the national level, U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, isn't involved in the redistricting process himself, but his congressional district is one being redrawn, and one that has seen some of the most growth.

Carter's district includes Coryell, Bell and Williamson counties, along with three others. He needs to lose more than 200,000 people to meet his population requirements.

This is because Bell and Williamson counties saw some of the most rapid growth in the state - Williamson County growing by nearly 70 percent, according to the 2010 Census.

"What I would like would be Bell and Williamson counties," Carter said. However, many speculators don't see how that's possible. Palmer, of the Bell Freedom Foundation, said they are too big to stay together.

He said with the current economic and job situation, he has no doubt that Williamson and Bell counties will be a metroplex by the next census, possibly even big enough to have a district each.

As far as the four new congressional seats that must be fit into Texas, speculation is all over the place.

Carter said at least one new seat is likely to be predominantly Hispanic, and one seat each could go to Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and South Texas in the San Antonio-Corpus Christi area.

Adamski of UMHB said there's a possibility of a new Central Texas seat, but it's still too early to tell.

Regardless of interests, everyone seems to agree that redistricting will once again be a heated, hard-fought battle. Fraser said it may be even more controversial than before.

With 101 Republicans in the Texas House who want to draw seats they can win again, Fraser said, "they have the votes to pass whatever map they want."

Carter said, "Everybody hopes the Legislature will do it and the courts accept it. We hope whatever they draw meets the VRA and when we're done, we're through for 10 years.

"But I can almost promise that it will go to the courts. It's the nature of politics in America today."

Contact Rose L. Thayer at rthayer@kdkhnews.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.

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