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Texas This Week: Michael Li on how redistricting map gives boost to GOP incumbents

With days left in the special session, Texas lawmakers are wrapping up their work on redistricting, but experts say the maps are problematic.

AUSTIN, Texas — In this week's edition of Texas This Week, Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, discusses the new political maps drawn by the Texas Legislature. Plus, this week, lawmakers passed a controversial bill on youth sports, the governor added another item to the call and the redistricting process is coming to a close.

Three things to know in Texas politics

Lawmakers pass bill on youth sports  

After hours of emotional debate on Thursday, the Texas House of Representatives approved House Bill 25, requiring public school students to play on sports teams according to the biological sex on their birth certificates issued at or near the time of birth. Supporters say the bill ensures biological girls don't lose opportunities to play or earn scholarships while opponents argue it targets trans-children. The legislation is a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and has passed the Senate each time the Legislature has met this year. Patrick also pressed Gov. Greg Abbott to add it to the special session agenda. The Senate wasted no time taking action on the legislation on Friday. Members of the upper chamber suspended the rules to allow a committee to meet to discuss the bill and vote it out, then the Senate passed the measure. The bill was amended to remove a definition of biological sex, so it heads back to the House for final approval.    

Gov. Greg Abbott adds an item to the special session agenda

The third special session of the 87th Texas Legislature must end by Tuesday, and on Friday, the governor added another item to the agenda at the request of the lieutenant governor. It will allow lawmakers to pass Tuition Revenue Bonds. The bonds, which are backed by tuition and fees but traditionally paid for by the State, will allow universities and colleges to fund construction projects. Pressed for time, lawmakers voted to give money to several higher education institutions on the same day the issue was added to the call.

RELATED: Gov. Greg Abbott adds 'higher education improvements' to special session agenda

Lawmakers advance redistricting maps

The key issue lawmakers are tackling in this special session is redistricting. The Texas House started debating its new map on Tuesday and voted to approve it at around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. The map maintains Republican control of the chamber, but leaders in the Republican Party of Texas say it puts some seats at risk. The Senate approved its map last week, along with the map for Texas's districts in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Texas House took up that map Saturday.

Michael Li, Brennan Center for Justice, on Texas's new political maps  

Along with passing new maps for the chambers, lawmakers took action this week to approve a new map outlining Texas's political districts in the U.S. House of Representatives. Texas added two new seats, thanks to population growth, but critics say none of the new maps reflect that growth, which is driven by minorities. Michael Li serves as senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, where he focuses on redistricting. He joined KVUE to talk about Texas's new maps.

Ashley Goudeau: You and your colleagues have been following the redistricting process that's been happening in Texas. In your professional opinion, do you see some issues with the maps that we're seeing so far, any gerrymandering? 

Michael Li: "Well, you know, there are a lot of red flags on the maps that Texas has passed so far, particularly the state Senate map and the congressional map. Really, you know, they are defensive gerrymanders where Republicans are taking competitive seats off the table. But really their defense of the most important thing, I think is their defense of gerrymanders that are accomplished largely at the expense of communities of color, where 95% of the state's growth [has come from the] last decade. And despite that, Texas not only does not create any new opportunities for communities of color, on either the Senate map or the congressional map, it actually goes backwards, right? For example, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it reduces the Latino percentage of one district from almost 50% of the citizen voting age population down to about 43%. And so in many places, it's going backwards, which is really remarkable and brazen and likely will result in suits about how the maps were either intentionally discriminatory or violated the Voting Rights Act."

Goudeau: Before we really dive more into the maps, I want you to take a moment to explain to us how gerrymandering happens. What exactly is cracking and packing? 

Li: "So the essence of a gerrymander is that you don't want to draw districts that your party wins by 80% of the gerrymandering party because then you're using your voters very inefficiently. What you want to do is you want to spread your voters out among as many districts as possible so that you win a bunch of districts by, say, 52 or 53%, right? That way you're using your voters very efficiently. At the same time, what you want to do is you either want to concentrate the opposing party's voters in a few districts or break them apart. Either way, you know, you're limiting their political influence. And so when you concentrate voters of the opposing party in districts, that's called packing, and when you break them apart, that's called cracking. And you see both of those things happen on the Texas map. Take, for example, the congressional map in the new District 22, which is in the Houston area. Minority voters are pulled out of the 22nd District and put into the Seventh District, which becomes very heavily minority. But that's really joining minority voters in Fort Bend County, which for voters in Houston, who they've never really sort of been part of the same district. They're very different types of voters and they're being put really in the district because they're minority voters and they're heavily Democratic, right? So that's an example of packing. Meanwhile, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, you have an example of cracking, where the Latino community is fractured among many different districts. So, for example, a large block of Latinos in Irving, Texas, are pulled out of District 33, which Congressman Mark Veasey represents, and put into the Sixth Congressional District, which is a district that runs, it's mostly rural and runs south of Dallas. So you have these suburban Latino voters in a rural white district, and that is, you know, an example of cracking. And you see similar things play out in various places on the Texas map."

Click here to see the latest version of the Texas Map for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Goudeau: So let's look at the new map for the Texas Senate. It secures Republican control of the upper chamber for the next 10 years. Critics note it creates a district for a former senator who lost his seat to a Democrat in the last election. It also cracks voters of color in Fort Worth by taking a district that used to just be in Fort Worth, so what we were talking about the suburban districts and adding in seven rural counties to that one district. Is the criticism that we're seeing about this map fair?

Li: "Yeah. I mean, I think that's a great example about what happened to Senate District 10 in Fort Worth, which you know, historically has been a district that is solely in Fort Worth and, you know, in Tarrant County. And really, the State didn't have to do much to it because the district was about perfectly populated for a district, and so it could have really left the district alone. And instead, what they do is they take 318,000 people out of the district who are in Tarrant County and put them in other districts, you know, splitting them heavily along racial and ethnic lines. And then they add about 328,000 people to the district, most of whom are white, right? And so the district becomes a lot whiter and a lot more rural. And you know that minority voters who had the ability to sort of really control the outcome of the election in Senate District 10 no longer do."

Goudeau: Turning to the House, some see this map as more reflective of the population growth. But one Democratic lawmaker in our viewing area, Rep. James Talarico, says he was gerrymandered out of his district. This is one of those suburban districts that was once a Republican district, but flipped. What do you see in the House map?  

Li:  "Well, the House map is also a gerrymander, right? I mean, it's a little bit less of a gerrymander than the Senate map or the congressional map because there are additional constraints. So, for example, House districts in the larger counties can't leave the county. And so, you know, there's a little bit more packing of minority voters as opposed to cracking of minority voters in the House map. And you know, it favors Republicans. It doesn't quite favor them as much as the the Senate map or the Congressional map, but nonetheless, you know, there are clearly opportunities that are taken off the table in places where Republicans can, and the suburbs are a prime example of that. But you know, there's also in Bell County, just north of Williamson, there are minority voters cracked in Killeen in order to prevent the election of a Democrat. And so there are clearly [gerrymanders], and I think that really bears emphasis, because you can't gerrymander in a state like Texas, either for Democrats or for Republicans, without targeting communities of color. Democrats still only get about 25%, 28% of the white vote in Texas. And the problem with white Democrats is that they tend to live really close to white Republicans in the same neighborhoods and sometimes in the same houses. And so unless you're drawing a line down somebody's bed, it can be hard to beat that aspect of a gerrymandering. Whereas because of residential segregation, you can pack together communities color or break them apart in order to move the partisan dial up or down. And so gerrymandering in a state like Texas, and this is true really throughout the South, it almost always happens at the expense of communities of color."

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