From July 10 to 14, a three-judge federal district court panel will hold an expedited trial to determine whether the congressional (and state House) districts that Texas Republicans passed in 2013 are intentionally discriminatory racial gerrymanders. If the plaintiffs prevail, Texas’ GOP legislators or even the court itself could have to draw new districts for the 2018 election cycle, which could consequently see black and Latino voters be able to elect their preferred candidates in additional districts.
The same court ruled earlier in 2017 that Republicans had intentionally discriminated by drawing an illegal racial gerrymander in several districts in 2011. However, the Justice Department and courts blocked that even more aggressive gerrymander from being used to begin with. A court modestly curtailed the GOP’s original map for the 2012 elections, and Republican legislators made that temporary map permanent in 2013. There is a strong chance that this court panel will also strike down parts of the current map, since some of the problematic districts are exactly the same under both versions.
Texas’ congressional map is one of the most ruthlessly effective Republican gerrymanders of any state, and the Lone Star State’s large population makes it arguably the single most important one nationally for the GOP’s unfair grip on the House. As shown in the map at the top of this post (see here for a larger version), Republicans won a lopsided 25-to-11 majority of seats in 2016 even as Donald Trump won Texas just 52-43. Furthermore, black and Latino voters were only able to elect their preferred candidates in 10 of 36 districts, even though people of color comprised roughly 46 percent of the eligible voter population in the latest census estimates.
If the court strikes down this map, Republican legislators would likely be able to draw a new gerrymander whose justification is strictly partisanship, something that the Supreme Court has so far tolerated. However, when race and party correlate as strongly they do in the South, it likely won’t be possible for Republicans to draw as effective of a partisan gerrymander if they can’t racially gerrymander too. In what some Republicans have called an “Armageddon scenario,” the court could even draw its own plan to remedy the handful of illegal districts, costing the GOP several seats in the process.
Just how effective is GOP gerrymandering in Texas, and what might a redrawn map look like in 2018 as a consequence of a favorable court ruling? To answer these questions, we’ll analyze a hypothetical fully nonpartisan congressional map below as part of our ongoing series on how Republican congressional gerrymandering affected the 2016 elections. We drew this map by balancing traditional nonpartisan redistricting criteria such as preserving communities of interest, minimizing city and county divisions, respect for the Voting Rights Act, and geographic compactness, while ignoring factors like where incumbents live.
To ensure that our hypothetical nonpartisan congressional map complies with the Voting Rights Act and past Supreme Court precedents, we have estimated the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey in addition to the official 2010 census population figures. Since Texas has a large and disproportionately Latino non-citizen population, all demographic figures given below refer to CVAP unless noted. We have additionally calculated results by district for every statewide partisan race from 2016 back to 1996 using the Texas Legislative Council’s redistricting data sets, and you can find all of those demographic and election statistics here.
Before we delve into the map, we’ll start with a quick note about what the Voting Rights Act requires. The VRA protects racial or ethnic minority groups in certain districts where there is 1) racially polarized voting, 2) a compact minority population, and 3) a majority population that would otherwise vote as a bloc to defeat candidates chosen by minorities. The VRA does not require that these districts elect a representative who belongs to the protected racial or ethnic group, just that the group can elect its chosen candidates, who may happen to be white.
As the Supreme Court has emphasized in recent racial gerrymandering rulings, a single racial minority group does not actually need to comprise an absolute majority of a protected district’s population so long as the group can reliably elect its candidate choice in that district. Consequently, black VRA districts often do not need to be majority black, while Latino VRA seats sometimes need to be considerably more than 50 percent Latino due to low turnout rates.
With those VRA requirements in mind, here is our proposed nonpartisan Texas congressional map shown below.
First and foremost, this map would rectify the harm to black and Latino voters that is at the heart of the current litigation. Following the court’s March ruling against the GOP-drawn map, districts 23, 27, and 35 will likely need to be substantially redrawn so that Latino voters can elect their candidate preference in seven districts in South Texas, up from the current five. While seven districts are nominally majority Latino under the existing gerrymander, two of these districts effectively function to elect the candidate choice of white voters.
Republicans had narrowly captured the 23rd District, which sprawls from El Paso to San Antonio, in the 2010 GOP midterm wave. They deviously added low-turnout Latino populations to the district so that it has a large Latino majority population, yet Latinos make up less than a majority of the electorate itself. This district mostly worked as planned by electing a Republican House member in 2014 and 2016. Hillary Clinton carried the existing 23rd by 50-46, but Mitt Romney won it by 51-48 in 2012.
Our proposed map would drop the higher-turnout whiter north and south sides of San Antonio while adding more of the predominantly Latino west side to the 23rd. Making the actual electorate more heavily Latino causes the 23rd to have favored Clinton by a wide 55-41 in 2016 and Obama by 54-44 in 2012. Consequently, Latino voters would be able to elect their candidate choice (likely a Latino Democrat), instead of white voters, who in this case had put black Republican Rep. Will Hurd in office.
Republicans drew another narrowly Latino-majority 35th District that snakes from San Antonio to Austin, but this district was solely intended to pack Democratic voters to make the surrounding seats safely Republican. Thanks to far higher turnout rates among white progressive primary voters in Austin, Latinos would struggle to actually nominate their preferred candidate in a Democratic primary. Austin’s longtime Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a white Democrat, has easily won under these lines, but a white Austinite very well could if he retired too.
Our nonpartisan version of the 35th drops Austin’s Travis County in its entirety, taking most of its population from San Antonio’s Bexar County at the expense of the 28th District. The 35th simultaneously increases its Latino population share to 54 percent while the share of white Democratic primary voters plummets, allowing Latino voters to nominate their preferred candidate in this district’s Democratic primary. Our 35th voted 52-43 for Clinton and 53-45 for Obama, but the polarized district was still relatively reliably blue even in lower-turnout midterms.
The final South Texas district that the court lambasted is the 27th District, which includes Corpus Christi and Victoria. This had long been an overwhelmingly Latino-majority blue seat that spanned from Corpus Christi south to Brownsville. However, after Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold won it in a fluke upset in 2010, Republicans removed its heavily Latino and Democratic southern end, reorienting it northward and making white Republican voters dominant there.
Texas had gained four congressional seats in reapportionment after 2010, and Republicans did draw the entirely new 34th District as a heavily Latino seat that contains Brownsville, but Corpus Christi’s large Latino population was left stranded in a heavily white GOP seat. Our redrawn nonpartisan version would reconnect most of Corpus Christi with Brownsville in the 34th, while the 27th’s Latino population falls precipitously as it moves toward the outskirts of Houston instead. These changes allow the existing Latino-majority 15th and 28th Districts to contract entirely from San Antonio to make way for the aforementioned 35th District.
These differences in South Texas would cause the 23rd and 35th to finally be able to consistently elect Latino voters’ candidate choice, all while preserving their ability to do so in the 16th, in El Paso, the 20th, in central San Antonio, the 28th, in Laredo, and the 15th, in McAllen. Consequently, all seven of these Latino-majority districts would likely elect a Democrat who would probably be Latino (especially since 16th District Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a white Democrat, is forgoing re-election to run for Senate in 2018).
Note that districts 15, 28, and 34 are still drawn vertically like “fajita strips” under our map. However, past court rulings require this configuration to prevent the Rio Grande Valley’s compact and near monolithically Latino population from being packed into too few seats by combining it with white voters further north. Furthermore, our proposed nonpartisan configuration in South Texas looks very similar to one that a federal district court itself tried to implement in 2011 before the Supreme Court overturned their decision by saying they did not sufficiently defer to the GOP legislature’s intent.
If the courts ultimately do strike down the Republicans’ latest map as a discriminatory racial gerrymander, it is likely that they will require some variation of this configuration for the series of districts spanning from El Paso to San Antonio to Corpus Christi. However, court-ordered changes might do far less to undo the Republican gerrymander elsewhere.
Turning to Austin, Republican gerrymandering has made it the largest city in America without its own congressional district after they split the city six ways, but our map would rectify that injustice by creating a new 10th District that’s located solely in Travis County. Longtime incumbent Doggett would likely run for and win that safely Democratic seat, while Republican Rep. Michael McCaul would find his seat eliminated, thus granting Democrats an additional safe seat. There’s no guarantee the court would require our configuration, but Republicans would likely want to concede a Democratic vote sink in Austin to protect their surrounding seats.
Our map would additionally redraw the 25th District to cover just Austin’s upscale western half and its northern suburbs in Williamson County, unlike the current sprawling gerrymandered district. This change swings the district from 55-40 Trump to 50-44 Clinton, although our proposed district is still a historically Republican seat that backed Romney 54-44. Nonetheless, Republican Rep. Roger Williams only outran Trump’s margin by 6 points against an unheralded Democratic foe in 2016 in his actual seat. He might have lost a fiercely contested race if our version, where Trump lost by 6 points, had been in effect last year.
Unfortunately, even a favorable court ruling would likely leave Republicans free to safely dilute Democratic voting strength in suburban Austin among multiple districts, especially if they pack the 10th to take in as many of Austin’s Democrats as possible. That means that one of Williams or McCaul would likely still have a GOP-leaning seat to run in next year if Republican legislators get to redraw the lines.
In the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area, Republicans had tried to pack Democrats into just a single seat with their 2011 gerrymander despite the region’s explosive population growth among Democratic-leaning black, Latino, and Asian-American voters. The federal district court panel also invalidated the 2011 map’s 26th District in their 2017 ruling, but unlike the South Texas seats, that district was no longer as racially gerrymandered under the current map.
When the courts took over the process heading into the 2012 elections, they created a new coalition district stretching between Dallas and Ft. Worth that appeared likely to elect a Latino, but only at the surface level. The current 33rd District was 60 percent Latino among all adults, but the CVAP was just 41 percent Latino and 25 percent African American. Disparate turnout rates helped see this seat narrowly elect the candidate preference of black voters from Ft. Worth in the 2012 Democratic primary. Rep. Marc Veasey, a black Democrat, has subsequently won with ease ever since.
Our redrawn iteration of the metroplex shown below would limit the 33rd District to just Dallas County. This version was 40 percent Latino and 21 percent black by CVAP in 2010, while changing demographics in the eight years since the census would likely mean that a 2018 electorate for a newly open seat could even more reliably nominate Latino voters’ chosen Democratic candidate. Note that the district’s eastern appendage is drawn to scoop out Latinos from the heavily black 30th, something that courts have allowed elsewhere.
Consequently, our map frees up Ft. Worth to anchor its own seat located wholly within Tarrant County. This new 6th District would be 31 percent black and just 39 percent white, while Latinos would make up 23 percent. Disparate turnout rates would make the Democratic primary heavily black, meaning Veasey would likely easily win re-election here, costing white GOP Rep. Joe Barton his seat. Note, even if the 6th and 33rd were drawn more compactly without regard to racial concerns, both would remain heavily Democratic.
Separating out Dallas and Ft. Worth consequently creates two coalition seats where neither African Americans nor Latinos form a majority alone, but where one of the two groups could nonetheless reliably elect their candidate choice in a primary and thus the general election too, resulting in an additional seat for Latinos. Because neither group could form a majority on its own (unlike in our nearly 50 percent black 30th), the court is less likely to require these changes compared to those in South Texas. However, the plaintiffs in this case will undoubtedly push hard for the court to do so.
In suburban northern Dallas, the 32nd District had lurched from 57-41 Romney to a 49-47 Clinton edge under the existing gerrymander. Our map would confine this district to just Dallas County, causing it to become a few points bluer at 50-45 Clinton and 56-42 Romney. Republican Rep. Pete Sessions faced no Democratic opponent in 2016 and almost certainly would have won last year even with these lines. However, Democrats are eagerly targeting him in 2018, and undoing the GOP’s gerrymander could make all the difference in a future close race. Unfortunately, Republicans could try to shore up Sessions’ majority-white seat if the court does order them to redraw the map elsewhere.
The Houston metro area is the last part of the map where nonpartisan redistricting could produce significant change. Like with Dallas, Republicans gerrymandered the region to prevent Democrats from winning any seats beyond the three they already held, even though the region’s black, Latino, and Asian-American populations have all swelled. Lamentably, the geographic locations of these individual demographic groups can make it difficult to empower one without disfavoring another, which is why our map shown below maintains the hook-like shapes between the heavily black 18th and Latino-majority 29th.
Our map would completely dismantle the snake-like 2nd District and reconstitute it as a minority-opportunity seat on Houston’s diverse west side by moving the heavily black 9th District further into suburban Brazoria and Fort Bend counties. This 2nd District would be just under 50 percent white, 21 percent Latino, 17 percent black, and 11 percent Asian-American. It’s also solidly Democratic at 62-33 Clinton and 53-45 Obama, leaving Republican Rep. Ted Poe without a seat.
While a black, Latino, or Asian-American candidate would stand a strong chance of winning the Democratic primary and thus the general election in our 2nd, no single racial group could reliably be expected to do so, meaning the court is very unlikely to require this district. However, our proposed 2nd is only growing more diverse over time thanks to Latinos in particular.
Some plaintiff groups have proposed an additional Latino seat on the west side that takes the northern hook from the 29th. However, doing so likely drops the 29th below a Latino majority, and the district court held that those proposals insufficiently demonstrated whether four compact majority nonwhite districts were required.
By drawing the 2nd as we have, Republican Rep. John Culberson’s 7th District now covers some of Houston’s most affluent neighborhoods. The existing 7th favored Clinton 48-47 while Romney won it in a 60-39 landslide, but our proposed version would have favored even Trump in a 58-38 blowout thanks to the influx of wealthy white voters. While Democrats are gearing up to challenge Culberson in the actual 7th in 2018, he would be heavily favored in our hypothetical version.
Our preferred map shown further above drew the 2nd to give more voice to the diverse and relatively lower-income neighborhoods on Houston’s west side, but even a more compact version that does not attempt to meet those goals likely still would have netted Democrats an additional seat in 2016 and future elections. This secondary nonpartisan configuration of Houston shown below leaves the 2nd over 60 percent white, but its well-educated electorate favored Clinton 54-41, while Romney carried it by a relatively modest 54-44.
While this alternate map’s 2nd District is much whiter, its 22nd District in Houston’s western suburbs is more diverse at just 52 percent white, 20 percent Latino, 15 percent black, and 12 percent Asian-American. This version of the 22nd favored Trump only 51-45, making his margin nearly three points narrower than his 52-44 edge in the actual 22nd. Romney’s 60-39 romp in our 22nd means Republican Rep. Pete Olson still would’ve cruised in 2016 and been a formidable incumbent in the future. However, the swiftly diversifying and well-educated population could’ve made this hypothetical seat competitive in 2018 or 2020, similar to the actual 7th District.
As shown below, our fully nonpartisan congressional map likely would have given Texas Democrats four or five extra House seats in 2016. Those districts include the 2nd in west Houston, the 6th in Ft. Worth, the 10th in central Austin, and the 23rd in San Antonio and El Paso, while the 25th in suburban Austin could’ve gone either way. Additionally, the GOP-held 32nd District in northern Dallas becomes slightly bluer, meaning this map’s impact could grow in future elections.
As we explained above, even if the court strikes down the GOP’s gerrymander and orders the state to draw new districts, it’s likely that Republicans will be able to draw a new gerrymander under additional constraints. Such a scenario would likely see Democrats and Latinos gain at least two seats between South Texas and Austin.
However, it’s an open question whether the court would require a new seat in Dallas-Ft. Worth that would likely elect a third extra Latino Democrat at the expense of a white Republican. The GOP would likely still get to gerrymander in Austin, Houston, and northern Dallas, but two-to-three extra safe seats would be a big deal for Democratic hopes of a House majority in 2018.
Conversely, if Texas Republicans for some reason do not get the opportunity to draw a new map and the court does it for them, the GOP really could be facing the “Armageddon” scenario that it fears. Regardless, we have demonstrated how Republican gerrymandering produces a monumental difference in the Lone Star State’s congressional delegation, and it likely cost Democrats more seats in 2016 than in any other state.