Texas is center-stage for another round of intense racial gerrymandering in 2021, and the stakes are higher than ever.
The fight for fair maps isn’t just political; it’s personal.
My name is Miguel Rivera, and I am the Redistricting Outreach Fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project. I’ve spent most of my life living in gerrymandered communities. I want to share that this is not a result of bad luck or a sum of coincidences, but instead that it is the consequence of a decades-long concerted effort to suppress the voices and dilute the voting power of communities like mine.
I was raised in Stafford, Texas. It’s a small suburb of about 18,000 people, and we are frequently overshadowed by our larger neighbors, Sugar Land and Missouri City. Nevertheless, we are a proud bunch. We boast the only municipal school district in the state, we frequently promote our lack of a property tax, and, until recently, were home to the longest serving mayor in the United States! Needless to say, I’m proud of the place I call home.
Stafford isn’t Stafford without its diversity. We are 32% Black or African American, 23% Non-Hispanic White, 20% Asian, and 25% Hispanic of any race. I believe it’s our diversity that has brought our city together. We come from different backgrounds and speak different languages, but the one thing we all have in common is the place we call home. Our shared sense of community allows us to come together and advocate for ourselves and our city. In the past few years alone, through community efforts, our school district has increased its funding and undergone a complete restructuring for the better. Our empty lots have been developed into middle class neighborhoods and mixed-use shopping centers, and our roads and highways have been updated and upgraded. It took a cohesive, local effort to imagine what we wanted and vocalize what we needed in our city.
However, our small, close-knit town has one invisible line running through it that cuts it in two. It’s a line that I frequently crossed without ever knowing. I would cross it for simple, everyday things, like going to school or picking up breakfast tacos from Solis, a hometown favorite.
Parts of Stafford find themselves in congressional district (CD) TX-22 along with most of Fort Bend County and bits of Brazoria County. The rest is in TX-9, which is almost exclusively within Harris County, but also includes pieces of Fort Bend County. I say pieces because the district line dips down into Fort Bend at Stafford and then returns north to Harris County for a stretch of about 5 miles before dipping back down and delineating Missouri City.
Stafford city limits with a congressional line (in red) cutting off 2 of 4 residential areas from the rest of the city. (Google Maps)
This means that the shared concerns of our community have to be petitioned before different representatives because the Texas Legislature saw fit to divide us.
This is neither coincidental nor accidental. They were made with the intention of diluting the voting power of my hometown and silencing the demands of communities of color like mine.
Residential neighborhood in Stafford bisected by a congressional district line | Photo by Linda Huynh
Leaving Stafford did not free me of the effects of gerrymandering. I was instead introduced to another way in which this convoluted and senseless system works.
Austin is crisscrossed by congressional districts that converge in student and minority neighborhoods. (govtrack.us)
When I was 18, I moved to Austin for college and I found myself once again in the middle of gerrymandered territory. Like most first-years, I lived at an on-campus residence hall and this made me a voter in TX-25. The following years, I lived in an apartment in the West Campus neighborhood that was a five minute walk to the University of Texas-Austin. But this made me a voter in TX-21. So yet again, I found myself crossing congressional district lines just to get to school. It’s obvious to any rational observer that Austin itself is heavily cracked into several different Congressional districts.
A closer look taught me that these districts converge at the major student enclaves and minority-majority neighborhoods. The result is that students at UT cannot unitedly voice their interests or promote their efforts for access to resources. Consequently, issues heavily impacting young people, like gun-reform, student-debt, climate change, and immigration, are sidelined.
Guadalupe Street connects University of Texas and West Campus. It is also the site of a congressional line.
I know my story is not unique in Texas. Gerrymandered districts are found all across the state. And if we let people in power have their way, we’ll continue to see them for the next 10 years.
Our state’s population exploded this past decade. Estimates put the growth at nearly 4 million people— among the highest rates of growth nationally. Politically speaking, experts say that this will give Texas at least two more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and at most three bringing the grand total to 39. This also means Texas will get more members in the electoral college.
In 2021, the congressional district maps that exist now will have to be totally redrawn to incorporate potentially three new districts. And all of this will be happening without the “preclearance” protection provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that allows the federal government to judge and redraw maps. Given Texas’ record of intentionally gerrymandering, we can expect these new maps to be just as overtly racist as those we’ve seen before. To make matters worse, the Trump administration announced in early August that they intended to speed up the Census counts by one month, which leaves millions of people uncounted, especially those in lower-income and rural communities. This leaves it up to everyday Texans to hold the Texas Legislature accountable.
For decades too many of us have been victims of gerrymandering and have had our voices systemically silenced by politicians. On Jan. 12, 2021, the Texas Legislature will begin it’s 87th Session. Assuming the Census follows it’s accelerated timeline, this will be the session in which new maps are going to be drawn and adopted. Whatever comes out of this session will affect political power and representation in Texas for the next 10 years.
In March, the Committees leading the process stopped holding public input hearings due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Texas. Since then, the Committees have remained silent on any contingency plan for continued public input.
This is not okay. Public input is one key way to ensure transparency.
Legislators that are dedicated to creating fair maps would not stall this long. Last month, TCRP joined 42 other organizations in petitioning the Texas House and Senate Redistricting Committees to commit to continued public input and forming a process that would allow Texans to safely submit testimony to the Committees. In unity, our 43 organizations sound a powerful voice for change. But this is not enough. This is why I am personally inviting you to join our efforts to fight for fair maps.
Texas Civil Rights Project and our partners MOVE Texas and the Texas Freedom Network launched an email action that allows you to contact the people in charge directly and demand they resume public input hearings.
The road ahead may seem arduous, but if we fight together, I know we can win.
Miguel Rivera is the Redistricting Outreach Fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project.