Tilting at the Redistricting Windmill

Listen: Carthy Shelton, Stephanie Swanson and Josh Hebert, DeGerrymander Texas; Liz Haltom, Texans Ending Gerrymandering

Like many of you, I am a newly activated liberal. It feels great. Yes, Trump is terrible, and the short-term outlook looks bad for a lot of public priorities, but his elevation has triggered an awakening that will persist after his time is up. I’m not going to quit and I know a lot of you aren’t either — America will be a better place for it. If earnest, patriotic, informed Americans like ourselves don’t take up the reins of self-governance then who will, amirite?

Burnout is always a concern, so I’ve decided give myself a local, shorter-term focus: advancing redistricting. In the state of Texas, we are behind the eight-ball: not only do the politics lean right in general, but the district maps are drawn in a way to even further disenfranchise those who do not lean right. Every battle in Texas is an uphill one, but that hill is made impossibly steep because of extreme gerrymandering. The fight to get fair districting in Texas is the foundational fight that makes all other battles more likely to succeed.


In the news, all of the attention is on the battle in the courts. There is much that is encouraging there, but we must not relinquish the fight before the Texas Legislature.

At this moment there are bills in both the House and Senate advancing bipartisan and nonpartisan redistricting commissions: HJR32, 74, and 118, HB369, and SB209. HJR32 and 74 will place ballot measures before the voters for the bipartisan commissions established in HB369 and SB209, respectively. HJR118 is a constitutional amendment creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission. HJR32/HB309 covers the state and federal legislative districts, HJR74/SB209 only covers Federal congressional districts, whereas HJR118 covers state, federal, and State Board of Education districts.

The bipartisan plans have a number of features in common: both choose members in the same, bipartisan way and redistricting plans require a supermajority vote of a 7-member bipartisan committee; both require that deviations in population size be kept below 2.5%; both require that district territory be contiguous, with joints at a single point being prohibited; both forbid any kind of racial or ethnic discrimination in the map drawing.

The differences, aside from the scope, are worth noting: the Senate plan contains provisions for the training of committee members, makes use of the notion of the compactness of a district and of drawing lines on natural boundaries, which is important to keep districts from sprawling halfway across the state, and in general has more detailed reporting requirements; the House plan is distinguished by forbidding the commission from considering partisan demographics or past partisan voting patterns in the drawing of district lines.

The nonpartisan commission bill HJR118 was introduced later in the session (the text became available earlier this month). It appears to be modeled closely on the bipartisan commission established in the state of California —it places boundary guidelines in a numerical order of priority: 1) follow the Constitution and strive for equal population; 2) follow the Voting Rights Act; 3) be geographically contiguous (contiguous is not defined); 4) cities, counties, neighborhoods, and communities of interest excluding those defined by partisan affiliation shall be kept intact where possible; 5) be compact (not defined); 6) not consider the place of residence of elected officials, nor partisan advantage. It lacks the training element of SB209, which is a weakness — analysis of California’s commission showed that such training is important. It general, it does not deal with the known problems that arose in the execution of the CA commission. That said, it is the only nonpartisan option — I would prefer elected officials be kept out the process entirely.

I want to stress that these are not perfect redistricting bills, but they are what we have to work with and are an important start — any of them would be a huge improvement over what we have now. There are only two legislative sessions, this one and 2019, before the next round of redistricting, so it is important that we resist making the perfect the enemy of the good. In any case, our chances of getting any of these bills through this session are small, but we can start the ball rolling by getting these bills onto the public radar. To that end, here is my short-term goal: get both the House and Senate to schedule public hearings on these bills.

If we can get public hearings, we get the opportunity to create a spectacle and draw attention to the issue. I believe Indivisible can generate a huge crowd of people from around the state to show up and testify, and doing so will accomplish something real and important.

Lawmakers ignore this issue because it is invisible — it is up to people like us to make it visible. There are substantial bipartisan majorities in favor of some kind of non/bipartisan redistricting plan, and showing up in large numbers to remind legislators of this fact does two things: it puts worry in the minds of legislators that fighting this issue can hurt them, and it gives potential candidates for office a popular issue to run on in any upcoming election in any district. On a longer-term basis, public hearings allow us to prepare the ground for an even more substantial fight in the next legislative session. They will be our public announcement: we are going to fight hard for this, so y’all better get ready.

Here’s what I’ve been doing to make that happen, and you can do it, too.

  1. I’ve contacted all the House and Senate committee members and expressed my support for these bills. I let the legislators know that even though I may not be in their districts, redistricting is an issue that affects all Texans, so I feel compelled to let them all know how I feel. Next, I’m calling the committee chairs on a weekly basis to check on the status of the bills. I’ve been getting politely blown off so far, but the more I call, the more I can start asking hard questions like “Why is Chairperson XXX refusing to deal with this legislation?” The more people that do this, the better — sustained pressure is what we need. Senate Committee on State Affairs committee members are here; House Redistricting Committee members are here. A list of bulleted talking points is here. In general, it is better not to follow a script. Scripted calls carry less weight than messages than you put into your own words, so spend some time with the bullet points figuring out what, if anything, you want to stress.
  1. I am calling media outlets throughout the state to encourage reporters to publish/produce stories on the redistricting bills before the legislature. I searched their sites for redistricting articles, noted the byline and contacted that reporter directly. I’ve contacted Texas’ public media outlets in a similar way. I’ve used both phone and e-mail, and have been successful with both, though e-mail appears to work better. I’ve been pitching the story as the logical follow-up to the court fight — Texas has a problem with how its district maps are drawn, and there are bills in the legislature that will make districting fairer and free it from the watchful civil-rights eye of the federal government. As the process moves forward, the story hook will need to change, so be flexible and creative; remember that reporters want to tell a story, not hear you complain, so pitch something you think many people would want to read.
  1. Finally, while Indivisible is a nonpartisan organization, that does not mean that you need to ignore your own partisan affiliation. Regardless of your affiliation, I encourage you to contact your party officials and leadership and let them know that this issue is a priority for you and that you would like to see them make a priority of it as well. I contacted my Texas State Representative Celia Israel the other day and had a nice conversation with a staffer about strategy. He hadn’t even considered a lot of the things I suggested, and it was a very productive conversation. He let me know that Manny Garcia is the head of messaging for the Democratic Party in Texas, so I called Manny directly and talked to him for a while about making redistricting a priority. He was a little hesitant at first, but it didn’t take long before he recognized the strategic value in taking this on right now. We’ll see if anything comes of it, but I intend to remain in contact with him.

As a next step, I plan to develop a statewide action group that focuses on redistricting, starting within Indivisible Austin. At the moment, there is a lot of basic, ground-level organization going on within IATX, and that process is going to take a while to shake out. Local district groups will have their own priorities, which is great and it’s what we all want to be a part of. That said, there are issues that affect all Texans and I’d like to leverage the power of Indivisible statewide in order tackle those issues: redistricting is a perfect example.

I can’t do this alone! If you would like to be part of this effort, please get in touch with me by email. Maybe we can set the example for how these groups are formed and organized for Indivisible groups across the state of Texas

I look forward to hearing from you all. Let’s make Texas fair!

Other ways to get involved:

Texans Ending Gerrymandering

Degerrymandering Texas















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