Princeton scientists give Texas an ‘F’ for proposed district maps

by | Oct 1, 2021 | 2022 Elections, Redistricting

Texas has received yet another failing grade, this time from Princeton University’s Gerrymandering Project, a group of researchers that employ math as a watchdog against unfair district maps. 

Led by neuroscience professor and elections statistician Sam Wang, the group of researchers is grading new proposed district lines that states across the country are drawing up as part of the decennial redistricting process.

To arrive at the letter grade, the team judges congressional and state district lines by their partisan fairness, competitiveness, and geographic features.

By geographic features, they mean how wild and squiggly the district lines are, and whether the lines split counties and fail to respect political subdivisions.

“We look at things how compact the districts are —  nobody actually draws districts like this, but the closer to a circle, the better and more ideal a district is,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, the senior legal strategist for the Project. 

In Texas’ case, 29 counties are split at least once.

Researchers also looked at how competitive districts are, or how likely they are to switch parties. If a district had a partisan composition of plus or minus 3.5% at around 50 percent it was considered competitive. 

“The congressional map only has two districts that are competitive, and I will be honest with you, they’re kind of barely competitive,” Podowitz-Thomas said. “They’re sort of right on the edge of our competitive range. So really this map is pretty clearly a partisan gerrymander.” 

Outside those two barely competitive seats, Republicans have surgically carved a partisan advantage for themselves in most other districts. That comes as no surprise, but the manner in which they did so certainly feels dystopian. 

In a dozen of the districts, Republicans have drawn themselves an average partisan win percentage of 60 to 63 percent, making it just out of the ideal range to be a competitive seat (46.5-53.5%). This becomes clear when graphing out and ranking the partisan composition of the districts; a majority of the districts are near identical in their partisan makeup. 

Princeton University’s Gerrymandering Project

“What it tells us is that Republicans decided there’s a range that they think is a safe seat, they decided it was the 60 to 70 percent zone, and then they probably used a computer to generate as many districts as they could in that zone,” Podowitz-Thomas said. “They don’t think those are going to flip over the next decade.”

Princeton researchers are using a similar algorithm that is able to generate and draw a million alternative Texas maps. Collectively, these maps provide a fair range of districts that could be possibly controlled by either party if voters were distributed naturally and under ideal conditions. 

In Texas, it seems Republicans have cranked up the math in the opposite direction. 

“It’s too neat, it’s too clean, this is not hand-drawn,” Podowitz-Thomas said of the flatline depicted in the graph showing the partisan makeup of Republican districts. “This is somebody using a sophisticated computer to generate this map.”

Podowitz-Thomas said as computers and technology have improved, gerrymandering has gotten more sophisticated. So sophisticated that lawmakers are able to create “stealth gerrymanders” — districts that look compact but are actually extremely skewed in their outcomes. 

“Because the computers are so sophisticated, you can actually tell it do that,” Podowitz-Thomas. “You can get a computer to generate a really nice-looking map that does terrible things in elections.”

Perhaps most concerningly, it’s more likely than ever that a gerrymander stands the test of time.  

“It used to be that you would draw the lines based on sort of what we thought was roughly the case in a given election, but by the end of the decade that may not be performing for you anymore,” Podowitz-Thomas said. “Now you can draw a gerrymander that’s pretty much gonna last all decade unless there are dramatic partisan shifts in the electorate.” 

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fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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