Now that Governor Abbott has signed the 2020 Census Redistricting Maps into law, the state can move forward to a March 1 primary election. The Georgetown View sat down with Texas District 20 Representative Colonel Terry Wilson (US Army-Retired) to talk about why, how, and the process when House district boundaries are re-drawn.
Rep. Wilson begins, “This is a process the Legislature goes through every ten years. When the decennial census takes place, we receive an exact count of the citizens in our state, and where they live.”
The Texas Constitution mandates that the Legislature draw boundaries to ensure the general—not voter—population of all State House voting districts is as close to equal as possible. The simple math divides the total population of the state by the number of House seats. The complicated math becomes necessary when population blocks grow or shift, or both, and those changes require the application of other Constitutional rules.
IDEAL OR CLOSE ENOUGH
Rep. Wilson says, “The key to the process—the core principle underlying everything we do—is that we will follow the Texas Constitution and ensure it all comes down to one person-one vote. Every person who goes to the ballot box should have an equal impact.”*
Through the years, with massive growth and competing government principles, the courts determined that exceptions would be necessary and allowed that, while still striving for equal numbers, district populations may fall within a 10 percent margin; i.e., they must be “close enough” with a minimum of 95 percent and maximum of 105 percent of the “ideal district.”
WHAT IS IDEAL AND CLOSE ENOUGH? The official U.S. Census counted 29,145,505 Texas residents. With 150 House seats, the exact average per district would be 194,303. To adjust for other factors, the House is allowed to create districts 184,588 and 204,018 citizens. Rep. Wilson explained, within these limits, there is no wiggle room. One Representative submitted a map with two extra people in it and the map was rejected.
A primary consideration in new House boundaries is the County Line Rule.
The Constitution allows that any county with sufficient population for exactly one district (plus or minus 5 percent) must be formed into a single district. The lines cannot be drawn to include any amount of land of another county.
Any county with a population smaller than one ideal district must be kept whole and combined with one or more contiguous counties to form a single district. Representatives must make every effort to keep counties whole to prevent gerrymandering.
In the 2020 census, Williamson County showed sufficient population for three full districts. “With just 10,000 more residents,” the Colonel says, “we would have had to create a fourth district that grabbed some of Williamson County and other counties added together.” As a result, House District 20 no longer includes parts of Burnet or Milam Counties. Rep. Wilson’s representation is wholly within Williamson County, and he is moving his residence to Georgetown to continue serving the district.
The County Line Rule was broken this year only in the case of Cameron County, which was broken into two districts. This exception was granted for the purpose of preserving minority opportunity districts; i.e., at least a 50 percent minority voting-age population.
While the County Line Rule is a rigid regulation in the State House, it is more of a preferred guideline in the Senate, where the districts are much larger. Rep. Wilson says, “It is not a law and a claimant may not take a Senate map to court just for breaking a county line.”
He adds, “As Texas grows in certain places, it becomes more difficult to make the voting districts even while still keeping counties together. That is why some of the district lines are irregularly shaped.” He cites Hays and Blanco Counties, and Harris County (Houston) as two distinct examples.
Larger counties are more able to create equal districts without splitting votes with another; Harris County has 24 complete districts. With so many residents, it is possible to move boundaries within the same county while keeping population counts within that ten percent margin.
Conversely, in 2010, Hays and Blanco Counties were both smaller than the ideal number but, together, they fell within the 95-105 percent range. Those two counties whole, with no breaks, used to be House District 45. After ten years of growth, however, Hays County now has enough population to make one complete district, plus one-quarter of an ideal district left over to join another multi-county district.
Rep. Wilson says, despite some objections based on gerrymandering in the State, this was not an issue in Williamson County. “Williamson County is very diffuse and diverse. The data show that, as a county, we are very evenly spread by age and race. We are also diffused very well across the county, with a lot of mixing of various groups. There is no singular place where either of those things are a potential issue.”
He adds the challenge to keep County voter precincts the same was nearly impossible due to growth, which outpaced the growth of the state. “We tried to only create breaks in those places that would have to break anyway; moving a voting precinct from one district to another can be as many as 10,000 votes.”
THE SPECIAL SESSION
Following the Constitution, House Representatives must vote on new maps by the end of the regular session. Due to the late release of census data, they could only work with data as it arrived in waves. Rep. Wilson says, “At first, we received the state count and learned how many U.S. Congress Representatives we would have. The detailed data was released after we had gaveled out, so the governor convened a special session to complete the work.”
He adds, “There are contingencies if the legislature doesn’t agree on a map, but we did agree and we did pass the bill in a special session and we will continue to do it every ten years. Now we know what the one person-one vote will be and that’s a great thing for Williamson County.”
WHY IT MATTERS
District A has 300,000 RESIDENTS.
Because a Representative represents all the people in a district, his or her single vote in the State House is a compression of the will of 300,000 people. As such, every time a delegate casts a vote, each voter has 1/300,000th of the vote’s impact on the floor.
District B has 50,000 residents.
Each time their Representative goes to the floor, he or she casts the same vote, but with fewer citizens, each resident has 1/50,000th of the compressed impact. While that number still seems small, it carries six times the weight of a District A voter.