Politics

Analysis: The partisan debate over voting laws is a prologue to redistricting

A voter filled out a ballot in Houston last November. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

The 2022 elections in Texas favor Republican candidates. They haven’t lost a statewide election for more than a quarter of a century, and they’ve been in the majority of the Texas House and Senate for two decades. Republicans quashed Democratic efforts to gain ground in the 2020 elections.

All that’s left is to fortify their position, a two-step exercise that starts with restrictions on voting laws, an effort nearing completion in the Legislature’s ongoing special session, and ends with new political maps based on the 2020 census, which will be the subject of a special session after the current one.

The stakes were evident a year ago, when Democrats were pouring money into legislative races and boasting in advance that they would gain enough seats in the Texas House to force bipartisan compromise on redistricting and other issues. There was even some very loopy fantasizing that the two parties could end up with the same numbers in the House if Democrats were able to win eight of the seats they had targeted.

It didn’t happen. Republicans won the day, the year and the chance to draw the political maps for the next decade. Now they’re just cashing in their winnings.

First, they’re going after election practices used in Harris County in 2020 that turned out to be particularly popular with voters of color, like drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting. The legislation that shot out of the Senate and then remained largely unscratched in the House on Thursday and Friday would outlaw those practices, make it illegal for election officials to send vote-by-mail applications to voters who haven’t asked for them, and tighten voter ID requirements at the polls.

That’s the legislation that prompted House Democrats to decamp to Washington, D.C., for more than a month this summer. The U.S. House passed a voting rights bill and the Texans claimed some credit for that, but they failed to stop the Republican juggernaut, which is now within days of getting the changes in voting law it has been seeking all year.

Redistricting was all the talk before the 2020 election, and the population counting that feeds redistricting went the way it was expected to go: Texas grew quickly, and people of color led the way. That counting was delayed by the pandemic, but when the numbers came out this month, some of the trends were even stronger than expected.

Texas grew like we all knew it would, especially in cities and suburbs. That growth was almost entirely driven by people of color, who accounted for 95% of the additions.

The number of Hispanics in Texas is slightly below the number of non-Hispanic white people in the state, a ratio expected to flip in the next year or two. And those non-Hispanic white Texans are 39.8% of the population now, meaning 3 of every 5 residents of the state are people of color.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/BDR6g/3/

How those Texans are represented will be a key part of the redistricting debate — not a new factor, but because of the major shift in the numbers, one that is even more compelling now to legislators and judges than it was in past debates.

Another will be the geographic splits as the state’s population is increasingly compressed into a triangle of major metros, with Dallas-Fort Worth at the top, Houston at the bottom right and San Antonio-Austin at the bottom left. Fewer than 10% of Texans live in the state’s 190 least-populated counties. Almost 40% live in the four most-populous counties, and two-thirds live in just 14 counties.

When you look at a post-election map of Texas, it looks like the state is overwhelmingly red, with some splotches of blue here and there. But the blue parts generally have more people. In 2020, 10 of the 14 most-populous counties voted for Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump, even as Trump was winning statewide.

For politicians drawing the maps, that means figuratively going house by house, voter by voter, trying — given that it’s a Republican Legislature — to collect enough Republican voters into enough districts to keep the GOP’s hold on state government, and its federal representatives, for another 10 years.

Election bills come up every year, but in normal times, redistricting only comes up once a decade. The fight over who can vote, and when, and with what proof has made for a nasty and partisan summer.

It’s just the warmup act.

Written by ROSS RAMSEY

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