Op-Ed: Partisan and racial gerrymandering aren’t the only threats to fair maps in Texas

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When you think of redistricting in Texas gerrymandering also inevitably comes to mind. This isn’t without cause. Since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Texas has gained notoriety for its blatant gerrymandering when drawing district lines cycle after cycle leading to long and expensive legal battles to undo some of the most egregious line manipulation. Both racial and partisan gerrymandering have been used in the past by the Texas Legislature to draw its electoral maps. But the state of Texas has also used another, lesser known, method to draw unfair maps: prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering, as defined by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is the practice by which state and local governments count incarcerated persons as residents of their facilities when electoral districts are drawn as opposed to counting them as residents of their last recorded addresses. Texas is no stranger to this practice. It is a well known fact that Texas incarcerates more people than any other state and has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country but the state has also used its prisoner population to bolster the representative power of rural communities at the expense of urban and more racially diverse communities, and this is where some of the most egregious harms of prison gerrymandering manifest.

Prison Gerrymandering Report 2021, Texas Civil Rights Project

Recent data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows that, as of February of this year, 112,000 people were incarcerated in state prisons. About 40% of these people are from one of the state’s five largest counties. In contrast, prison facilities in the state are frequently in rural regions of the state, with a particularly high concentration of them found in East Texas.

Prison Gerrymandering Report 2021, Texas Civil Rights Project

This means that during the decennial redistricting process, incarcerated individuals are counted as residents of the counties where their prison is located. Elected officials who represent jurisdictions with larger incarcerated populations have the benefit of counting those individuals as constituents despite the fact that some incarcerated individuals do not have the right to vote and those that do are from other parts of the state and are likely able and registered to vote in their home communities but not the county of their facility.

TCRP released a report on Prison Gerrymandering today focusing on the impacts of prison gerrymandering and specific recommendations that the Legislature can take to end the practice. Primary among those recommendations are specific legislative steps that our state leaders can take. There are currently a few bills addressing the issue filed this legislative session: HB 1448 filed by Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr. (and a duplicate bill, HB 2518 filed by Rep. Terry Meza) as well as HB 3463 filed by Rep. Jasmine Crockett. HB 3463 in particular addresses the issue of prison gerrymandering and provides immediate remedies that would take place in time for redistricting this fall. However, the bill was referred to the House Corrections Committee on March 22 and has not been given a hearing to begin its life through the legislative process.

Although redistricting seems a ways away, the fight for the next 10 years of political power in Texas has already begun.

Miguel Rivera is the Redistricting Outreach Fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project.

This article is part of a collaboration between the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and the Texas Signal. Every two weeks we will feature a new piece from TCRP focusing on voting and election-related bills facing the Texas legislature.

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