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Redistricting could reshape political power in Texas. Here's what you should know

It can be a "nuclear bomb" to shift elections, and it only happens every 10 years. The first maps are already out.

FORT WORTH, Texas — There’s one point Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree on: redistricting matters…a lot.

“it will determine the shape of power for the whole of the decade,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at NYU’s Brennan Center. “It is something that is challenging, but I like to call redistricting an every-10-year Olympics.”

Li graduated from UT-Austin and previously worked in Dallas. He says redistricting, the focus of Texas’ third special session that started Monday, is arguably the most important issue lawmakers will vote on.

“These voting laws are kind of like a death by a thousand cuts when it comes to voting,” he said. “Redistricting is more like a nuclear bomb.”

District maps are redrawn every decade after each census to make sure the populations of each district are balanced. The weirdly drawn shapes of state and federal districts, though, are partly because it’s also a chance for the party in power to make sure it stays that way.

“There’s almost an irresistible temptation to put your thumb on the scale to sort of get a few more goodies for your party,” Li said.s 

Representative James White, R–Woodville, says voterwill have the final say more than district lines.

“It’s what the people will chose, not necessarily people on committees or the house floor,” White said.  “Everybody wants to blame it on redistricting, but it could just be you’re a bad candidate. You just don’t win, all right.”

Li says the Dallas-Fort Worth area districts have been aggressively redrawn in a proposal submitted by Republicans on Saturday. For instance, District 10, currently held by Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, used to include southern Tarrant County, but the new proposal would now pull in Johnson and Parker counties too.

“That seems really unusual because you didn't have to make that many more changes to Senate District 10 to keep it in compliance with equal population and other requirements, but they chose to make a whole bunch of them,” Li said. “That raises a lot of flags because that’s an area where the state got flagged for intentional discrimination the last time around.”

“They’ve cracked out portions of the Hispanic community, portions of the African American and Asian communities, in a way that will just totally dilute that voice and has added, in fact, rural counties that are largely Anglo populations,” Powell said. “It’s really a sad situation.”

Texas is getting two new Congressional districts because of its growth. Census data shows 95% of that growth is communities of color which voting democratic. That includes 1.9 million new Hispanic residents, nearly 10 times the number of non-Hispanic white residents added to the state. House Speaker Dade Phelan has said those districts will likely be in the population centers of Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston.

“Republicans are now just going to lay down and allow Democrats to have those two congressional seats without a fight in the courts,” said Sen. Royce West, D–Dallas. “There will be litigation and from that standpoint, Republicans will do what they want to do because we don’t have the votes in order to stop it.”

In 2003, the issue became so controversial it led to a walkout like what House Democrats did this year to attempt to block new voting changes. Outside of the courts, they haven’t shared details on how to try to stop Republicans from redrawing maps the way they want them.

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“In a lot of ways, you can make elections almost meaningless because the results will be almost predetermined by how the maps are drawn,” Li said.

The maps will be set for the 2022 election, but there will be legal battles if maps put all voters of one party in the same district or carefully split them up, so their votes don’t matter.

“The bad news is new technology has made redistricting more nefarious,” Li said. “The good news is that same technology has made it more accessible than it’s ever been.”

Li says while redistricting seems complicated, it’s the political issue both parties should care about.

“This is the gateway. This is the gateway to everything else that follows,” Li said. “It’s vitally important to pay attention and get involved now.”