Bell County’s voting districts are about to change. The only question at this point is how much.
On Tuesday, a Texas House committee approved a draft proposal to redraw districts for the lower chamber across the state.
One of the biggest eye-openers in House Bill 1 is the map for Bell County, which makes wholesale changes in House Districts 54 and 55, which are represented by Republicans Brad Buckley of Salado and Hugh Shine of Temple, respectively.
The current map puts the western and southern portions of Bell County — including Killeen, Harker Heights and Salado — in District 54, along with Lampasas County. The eastern and northern portions of the county — including Temple and Belton — are in District 55.
Under House Bill 1, however, District 54 would encompass the outside edges of the county — including much of Killeen west of Stan Schlueter Loop, Salado, Holland and Troy, while District 55 would occupy the interior, including Harker Heights, Nolanville, Belton and Temple.
Basically, the proposed map has District 55 sitting inside of District 54 — a dramatic change from the current setup.
Even more importantly, the new map removes Lampasas County from District 54 and places it in District 68.
This move wasn’t unexpected, given the rapid growth of Bell County and the requirement to keep Districts 54 and 55 about equal in population. However, the change could have consequences for Buckley if it remains in the final map. That’s because Buckley lost Bell County both times he ran for the seat, but Lampasas County gave him enough votes to overcome the deficit and win election twice.
Without Republican stronghold Lampasas County to counter an increasingly Democratic-leaning Killeen, and with typically conservative Harker Heights moving into District 55, Buckley would have to depend on rural areas throughout the county to garner enough votes to win.
On the flip side, Shine has built strong relationships with rural residents of District 55 over his five terms in office, and changing the shape of his district would impact him and his constituents.
The proposed House map was authored by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, who heads up the House Redistricting Committee. It was revised Tuesday amid criticism that the previous version diluted the Black vote in Killeen by dividing it between the two districts.
So now the revised version is headed to the House floor for debate.
Still, the process has a long way to go, and it’s entirely possible that Bell County will see more drastic changes before the bill goes to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.
Or course, there’s more redistricting business going on in Austin than just the Texas House.
Lawmakers are also redrawing districts for the state Senate, as well as congressional districts.
Texas senators on Monday passed a proposed redistricting map for the Senate, SB4, and sent it on the House for consideration. Under that plan, Bell, Coryell and Lampasas counties would remain in District 24. However, even if the district remains intact, the area will be getting a new representative, as state Sen. Dawn Buckingham is seeking the state land commissioner’s post.
The congressional map process is another story, however.
With Texas getting two more seats in Congress as the result of the 2020 Census numbers, several plans are being put forward to redraw the state’s voting lines.
Right now, Bell County is split between Congressional District 25, represented by Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and Congressional District 31, represented by Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.
However, it’s possible that Killeen may not be in either district once the state’s map is redrawn.
A plan approved by a Senate committee last week keeps much of Bell County and all of Coryell County in District 31, but virtually all of Killeen and areas to the south are moved into District 11 — a vast district extending westward almost to the New Mexico border. At present, the district is represented by Republican August Pfluger II of San Angelo. If the redrawn map is adopted, Killeen would be the easternmost point in the sprawling, 19-county district. Midland and Odessa would be on the western end, with San Angelo roughly in the middle.
With Midland-Odessa being an oil and gas hub, San Angelo a sheep production center and Killeen a military community, it’s hard to imagine a district that has a more diverse range of interests among its major population centers.
Still, redistricting isn’t always about balancing interests; it’s about balancing the numbers. And the majority party strives to make those numbers tilt in their favor. The intended result is a district that has a better than even chance of staying in party hands or tipping that direction.
Republican lawmakers in Austin have been criticized for attempting to gain an electoral advantage by splitting up minority populations in order to diminish their political clout.
That’s where the courts come in.
In 2017, federal judges reprimanded the Legislature’s Republican majority for intentionally diluting the power of Black and Hispanic votes. After the 2010 census, the Texas Legislature’s maps were out of compliance with both the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act and were redrawn in federal court.
Already this year, the Legislature has been the target of a lawsuit, by two Hispanic Democratic state lawmakers who contend that the courts — and not the Legislature — should redraw the state’s voting districts to allow for more equitable representation.
But Republicans aren’t the only ones who have tilted the playing field.
Democrats dominated both houses of the Texas Legislature for decades, and consequently, they were the ones in charge of drawing the district maps every 10 years — giving the party a distinct advantage come election time.
When Shine was first elected to office in 1986, he was the first Bell County Republican to be elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 100 years, according to his official Capitol web page. Shine left the Legislature in 1991 and returned to office in 2016, but the seat remained in Republican control in the interim.
When Suzanna Gratia Hupp of Lampasas won the District 54 seat in 1996, she broke a Democratic hold on the seat that went back nearly two decades, as it was configured with Bell and Lampasas counties. The seat has been in Republican hands ever since. However, the margin of victory for Republicans in the district has been decreasing since 2012.
Whether new district maps will affect that outcome is unsure, but the GOP majority in Austin is definitely trying to use the process to maximize the party’s advantage at the polls.
Whatever happens, the redistricting process will be interesting to watch. And Central Texans should pay attention, because the area’s political representation is potentially at stake.
The ability for the state’s majority party to redraw voting districts embodies the famous phrase, “To the victors go the spoils.”
Exactly what those spoils will translate to locally remains to be seen.