You’ve probably heard the term gerrymandering in connection with how Republicans(and Democrats) have used the technique to gain power. You have a vague idea of what it means and even though you know it’s bad, you may be underestimating how important of a phenomenon it is.
Gerrymandering is a process best described as “politicians getting to choose their voters”, as the modern godfather of gerrymandering himself Thomas Hofeller once put it. The political party in power uses partisan information to draw districts that all but guarantee their party will win. This has some serious consequences on our democracy and everyday life. You can view the John Oliver clip below to get a better understanding of the entire process.
How That Plays Out in Texas
Districts are redrawn every ten years after a Census has been taken. Here in Texas, the state has chosen to not give any money towards census taking in 2020. Which probably means that the Texan population will be undercounted, leading to less representation in government and less federal funding flowing into the state, probably leading to higher property taxes in the near future.
Who would leave free money on the table!? Well, population increases tend to occur near big cities, which tend to be left-leaning. If properly counted, left leaning parts of the state would gain more power and turn Texas into a much more competitive state. If an undercount occurs, it is much more likely that Republicans will retain control of Texas politics. (Wild? Yes, but not unique. The Democrats used similar techniques in the past to control Texas up until the early 2000s.)
Now compound an undercounted population with actual gerrymandering and you get to see a dwindling amount of representation by the public. When politicians draw districts to pick their voters they dilute the voting power of particular groups and in some cases the majority. For instance, in the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans won 53% of the vote for all Congressional districts vs. 47% for Democrats. Texas currently has 36 Congressional seats and you would expect that 19 would go to Republicans and 17 to Democrats looking at that split. Instead, 23 seats went to Republicans and 13 went to Democrats. Gerrymandered districts have diluted the power of Democratic voters. This goes on to affect voting power when it comes to issues like climate change, healthcare, and even seemingly unrelated issues like receiving federal funding for public transportation or flood infrastructure. If one groups concerns are systematically ignored because their votes aren’t necessarily needed to win office, it becomes disturbingly difficult to create change.
What Can We Do About It?
Make sure you are counted in the census, encourage others to be counted as well, including the undocumented population. The census does not ask the citizenship question, despite the President’s best efforts, so they should be safe. An accurate count ensures accurate representation. Texas is expected to gain 2 or 3 more seats in Congress representing an estimated extra 2 million people with an accurate count. You lose representation when you’re not presumed to exist. An accurate count also ensures a fair share of federal funding to deal with issues for those extra residents like flooding, public transportation, and healthcare. You can connect with Houston in Action to see how you can get involved in Houston.
Pay attention to state politics! State politicians are the ones who draw the district lines at this point. You can contact your state reps or go to public hearings(more are scheduled for 2020) to ask that they draw fairer maps or better yet, ask for an independent redistricting committee, a committee of normal citizens, to draw districts to remove as much partisan bias as possible. Here are some specific bills you can voice support for and an FAQ on redistricting and gerrymandering in general.
Reaching out to your reps at public hearings are important because it is all public record. If states draw heavily gerrymandered districts and are taken to court, it helps to have public complaints to strengthen a case against them. In the past, they have gotten to say, “no one spoke out, so obviously no one cared”. The more noise we create, the harder it is to ignore. You can also vote for politicians who support nonpartisan district drawing. As the 2020 elections come around we will be asking candidates about their stances on that and create a voter guide.
If you would like to learn more about redistricting in Houston or in general, reach out to me at Darryl.Alexander@usa4r.org, head to FairMapsTexas.org, and/or join the FairMaps Texas: Houston FB group.