Op-Ed: Three ways redistricting could shift power on the Harris County, Texas commissioners court

by | Aug 19, 2021 | Houston, Opinion

Now that the Census Bureau has issued 2020 population results, jurisdictions across the country have the once-in-a-decade task of preparing for redistricting. Redistricting is the constitutionally-required task of re-drawing political boundaries for electoral districts to ensure that districts have a relatively similar population.

In Harris County, Texas, Republicans controlled Commissioners Court, the 5-person governing body for the county, for decades. In 2018, when County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia were elected, the two Democrats joined Commissioner Rodney Ellis to form a Democratic majority on the Court for the first time in generations. With this 3–2 Democratic majority, Democrats now have the power to redraw the lines for the four single-member commissioner districts.

Over the course of the last decade, population in Harris County boomed, growing by over 630,000 residents from 4.1 million in 2010 to 4.7 million today. Most of the population growth occurred in Precincts 3 and 4, which are also the same precincts currently held by the two Republicans.

In this round of redistricting, the Court will need to tweak the districts so that the four precincts have relatively similar population numbers. For this year’s sake, that means increasing the population in Precinct 2 and decreasing the population in Precincts 3 and 4. To do so, the Democratic-majority can attempt a range of actions that can be simplified into 3 main results: maintain the same 3–2 Democratic majority or increase their majority to 4–1.

Republican’s Historical Gerrymandering 

The current Commissioners Court map was drawn a decade ago, by the then 4–1 Republican majority. At that time, Republicans held Precincts 2, 3, 4 and the county judge position. The map was drawn with the intent to solidify the Republican 4–1 majority by increasing Republican voters in those three precincts, particularly Precinct 2. The court did so by replacing Hispanic Democratic voters with Anglo Republicans. 

They were successful through much of the decade. In the high-Republican turnout year of 2014, Republicans crushed Democrats. Republican Governor Greg Abbott won Precinct 2 by more than 16% of votes and Precincts 3 and 4 by more than 20% each. Even in 2018, when Beto O’Rourke lifted Democratic performance to its most competitive level in a generation, the Republican majority barely crumbled. County Judge Hidalgo, the only one of the five members of the court to be elected county-wide, won by less than 2%. Commissioner Garcia won Precinct 2 by 1%. Last year, when Democrats had a chance to flip Precinct 3, the Democratic candidate lost by 5%.

Democrats’ Potential Strategy

When considering how to redraw the map, the new Democratic majority will likely keep Precinct 1 solidly Democratic while shoring up Precinct 2 for Commissioner Garcia. The question is whether the court makes Precincts 3, 4, or neither more Democratic so a future challenger has a better chance of ousting the Republican incumbents.

The problem with choosing neither means the Republicans have a chance of flipping the current Democratic 3–2 majority in the event Democrats lose the County Judge position. Similarly, if the Court decides to make only Precinct 3 more Democratic, there remains a risk that Republicans win control because Precinct 3 is not up for election until 2024. Because Precinct 4 is up for election in 2022, the safest bet for Democrats to retain uninterrupted control will be to redraw Precinct 4 more Democratic.

Shoring Up Precinct 2 Only

If the Democratic majority decides only to shore up Precinct 2, below is a map that accomplishes the goal while doing the least amount of precinct-swapping. Here, majority white Republican voters are removed from Precinct 2 in the northeast and southeast parts of the county. Precinct 4 (red) absorbs the northeast rural white areas of the county and Precinct 1 (blue) absorbs the southeast suburban white areas of the county. In exchange for these areas, Precinct 2 gains majority Hispanic precincts in the north central parts of Houston of Aldine and parts of northwest Houston/Spring Branch.

Under these changes, Precinct 2 becomes a solid Democratic district where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis would have won by more than 4% in 2014. This is a 20% shift left as Republican Greg Abbott won the current version of Precinct 2 by 16%.

In contrast, the other 3 precincts move slightly to the right. Solidly-blue Precinct 1 remains very much Democratic territory as Davis wins under this map by 40% (she won in the existing map by 53%). This slight trend to the right is explained by Precinct 1’s absorption of Precinct 2’s conservative southeast Harris County. In Precinct 3, the district becomes marginally more conservative (around 1%) as Precinct 3 sheds a small handful of majority minority precincts in the Alief/Southwest Harris County area to Precinct 1. In Precinct 4, the district becomes 7% more conservative as Precinct 4 gains white Republican precincts in northwest Harris County from Precinct 2 and trades away majority minority precincts in northwest Houston/Spring Branch and near Jersey Village to Precincts 1 and 2.

Side note: Assuming Democrats face a high-Republican turnout year in 2022, as is likely to occur given that the party in control of the presidency usually suffers from a lack of turnout in the subsequent midterm election, the 2014 election results for each map presented in this post should be considered the most likely indicator for what may occur in 2022.

Redrawing Precinct 3 or 4

In the event the Court decides to also redraw Precincts 3 or 4, the new Democratic district will likely lie on the west side of the county and Republican areas will be packed into one large northern district. This is because Democratic votes outside of Precinct 1 and 2 are congregated in only two parts of the county: Alief and the southern Cypress areas in western Harris County. Regardless of whether the Court numbers that Democratic district Precinct 3 or 4, there are only two general ways to draw this new district that would render it safe enough so that a Democrat would have carried it during the 2014 Republican wave year. 

Option 1

Under Option 1, the new Republican district (purple) is completely redrawn by merging the majority white northern parts of Precinct 4 — Kingwood, Spring, Tomball — with the majority white western portions of Precinct 3 — northern Cypress, Waller, and Katy. A new Democratic district (red) is drawn by merging the southern majority minority parts of Precinct 4 — southern Cypress, Jersey Village, Spring Branch, Heights — with the southwestern majority minority parts of the old Precinct 3 — Alief, Gulfton. 

Precinct 2 remains shored up for Democrats by giving majority white areas in the far northeast to the Republican purple district. Precinct 2 then swaps majority white areas in the far southeast of the county to Precinct 1 in exchange for majority Hispanic areas in the north central Houston, Aldine, area. 

With Option 1, even under a high Republican-turnout year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis won Precinct 1 by a large margin and in Precinct 2 and the new Democratic district by more than 4.5%.

Precinct 2 becomes safely Democratic by gaining 7% more Hispanics than the current map (making it a majority Hispanic CVAP district) and also boasts 12% more racial minorities. The new Democratic district is a majority-minority district (60% non-white) with Hispanics holding 30%, Blacks nearly 20%, and Asians just over 10%. This district notably becomes the largest Asian district of the four. The Republican district is a majority white (61%). 

Option 2

This map is largely the same for Precincts 1 and 2 as Option 1. The main changes are between the new Democratic and Republican districts. Here, the Republican district enters the Memorial area just west of Houston through coming south from Jersey Village. In the previous Option 1 map, the Republican district enters east to the Memorial area from the far western Katy area. 

Beyond the geographic changes of this map, Option 2 has no substantive partisan differences than Option 1. As such, Precincts 1, 2, and the new Democratic district become solid Democratic seats.

Conclusion

It’s very possible to draw 3 safe Democratic precincts in Harris County. Barring an extraordinarily weak Democratic candidate, the new Democratic district presents an opportunity for the current Court to extend their power to a 4–1 majority. With either of the two Options presented, the Democrats can also protect their majority in the event they lose the County Judge position. The question is whether they choose to adopt such a map, and if so, whether the new Democratic seat is numbered as Precinct 3 or 4, which will determine when the Democrats will flip that seat.

Benjamin Chou is a former Senior Advisor at the Harris County Elections Department and political campaign manager.

Photo: John Coletti

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