Texas Republicans quietly ended public hearings for redistricting. Advocacy groups are demanding change.

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In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Republicans have quietly halted plans to hold a series of public input hearings across more than 20 cities, slated to occur earlier this year, to collect public testimonials from Texans about redistricting. These testimonials would be a critical tool to help group communities which share common social and economic interests, voting patterns, and local preferences as new district maps are being drawn.

A coalition of 42 advocacy groups have taken notice of this indefinite stoppage and are demanding for the resumption of public hearings on redistricting in a safe and accessible format.

Redistricting, the process of redrawing the boundaries of every congressional and state legislative district to maintain roughly equal populations, occurs every 10 years after collecting new census data, and has a fraught history in the state of Texas.

Texas has been found in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because of intentional racial discrimination every decade since its enactment. State lawmakers, who largely control the drawing of new district lines, have been challenged in court each decade for intentionally weakening the political power of voters of color by packing them into select districts, or splitting them across several districts — a practice commonly known as racial gerrymandering. 

The most recent redistricting plan in 2010, drawn by a Republican-dominated Texas Legislature, set off a decade-long legal struggle of 10 separate court rulings of intentional racial discrimination against Black and Latinx voters.

Legal challenges to gerrymandered maps were facilitated by a federal oversight measure in the Voting Rights Act known as “preclearance,” which forced states with a history of discrimination, like Texas, to get new district maps and voting right laws cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before going into effect. Preclearance proved, for decades, to safeguard against the most egregious violations of disenfranchisement of voters of color. In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the preclearance law in Shelby v. Holder, giving Texas a new unchecked power in creating voting laws and passing redistricting plans. 

In an effort to remedy urgent concerns about the lack of preclearance and increase transparency in the upcoming 2020 redistricting process, Texas lawmakers planned for a series of public input hearings earlier this year, led by the House and Senate Redistricting Committees. Both committees are led by Republicans, Rep. Phil King and Sen. Joan Huffman, respectively.

The House and Senate originally planned for a limited public hearing schedule, however, the Texas Civil Rights Project built a coalition of groups to successfully agitate for the geographic expansion of these public hearings to reach across every corner of the state, from Austin and Houston to Amarillo and Weslaco. Then, COVID-19 swept across the state.

Because state leadership prematurely opened the state and failed to enact safety measures to control the pandemic, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed to nearly 600,000 infections and have claimed nearly 11,000 lives, disproportionately killing Black and Latinx Texans. South Texas communities along the U.S.-Mexico border have the highest infection rates across the entire nation.

Due to the pandemic, public hearings for redistricting were indefinitely postponed in March. However, in the past four months since, the legislature has failed to provide a plan to resume the hearings with a modified schedule or different format.

The Texas Civil Rights Project argues that resuming this process to hear from Texans and receive community input is both urgent and vital to avoid further suppression and the dilution of voting power of Black and Brown communities.

The group’s urgency was exacerbated when the U.S. Census Bureau abruptly moved their population count deadline one month earlier, upending their original schedule. More than 40 percent of Texas households have not yet responded to the census, higher than the national average, with low-income Latinx communities facing the greatest risk of being undercounted. An undercount in the census, which determines funding and congressional seat allocation, could further deplete Texas’ financial resources and political power for the state’s most marginalized.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has built a broad coalition of 42 partners and allies, like the Texas NAACP, MOVE Texas, and Workers Defense Project, to demand that the Texas House and Senate Redistricting Committees develop and implement a comprehensive plan for continued public input before 2021, when the redistricting process would officially begin. In a joint letter directed to chairs and members of the redistricting committees, the 42-member coalition lays out specific and inclusive demands, including asking that the legislature commit to holding regional input hearings to maintain shared community interests, in which people can submit testimony virtually or by phone. These hearings would require sufficient advance notice and clear written instructions for the public on how to participate.

Further, the letter asks that the committees establish a process for submitted comments to be included in official committee records that would be easily accessible by legislators and the public during the actual redistricting process during the legislative session, as well as ensuring that recordings, witness lists, minutes, and relevant documents, are committed to the legislative archives similar to a regular committee meeting.

The coalition of advocacy groups also urge the legislature to quickly begin virtual hearings, but maintain that virtual town halls are inadequate as they do not become part of the official committee record or get archived on the committee’s website.

“On top of being the correct decision for the benefit of your constituents and all Texans, this process is also legally necessary due to Texas Legislature’s long and shameful history of intentionally discriminating against communities of color,” the letter states, asking for a formal response by August 24. 

“At the end of the day, it is the fight for the next ten years of political power and representation in Texas,” said Miguel Rivera, the Redistricting Outreach Fellow for the Texas Civil Rights Project. Without federal oversight from the preclearance of the Voting Rights Act, there is growing urgency for public hearings.

“By having these public input hearings, people could testify, explain how their communities are expected to be represented, and voice if they see a problem with a [district] line being drawn halfway through their neighborhood or halfway through their community,” Rivera said. “It also allows for future litigation to be held if the legislature and the committee completely go against the input that they received at these hearings.”

To back their calls to action, the Texas Civil Rights Project plans to mobilize community members through town halls next month with the Mexican American Legislative Council (MALC), who would have the ability to submit these town halls into legislative record.

The same Black and Latinx residents bearing the deadly brunt of COVID-19 are also those most likely to be written out of the redistricting process — potentially stripping them of political power, resources, and community funding. A fair and transparent redistricting process powered by public testimonials could change the current trajectory toward suppression. Texas’ advocacy groups are boldly putting pressure on top lawmakers to demand that swift change is made.

Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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