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Texas This Week: Princeton Gerrymandering Project gives Texas political maps an 'F'

The new maps for the State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives earned an F, while the State House map got a C.

AUSTIN, Texas — In this edition of Texas This Week Helen Brewer of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project explains why the non-partisan group gave Texas a failing grade on two of its new maps, and we recap the weeks top political headlines.

Three things to know in Texas politics

Texas voters approve constitutional amendments

Voters approved all eight statewide propositions on the ballot on Election Day. The measures cover several topics, from letting professional rodeo associations hold raffles to banning the State, Cities and Counties from limiting religious services, to letting residents of long-term care facilities designate essential caregivers that must be given access to them. 

RELATED: All 8 amendments to the Texas Constitution passed. But Travis County voters rejected 3 of them

The Texas House of Representatives gained another Republican. John Lujan turned San Antonio's House District 118 red, defeating Frank Ramirez in a special election to replace former Rep. Leo Pacheo (D).

U.S. Supreme Court takes up 'Texas Heartbeat Act'

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Texas's near-total ban on abortion. Senate Bill 8 bans doctors from performing abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected. That's typically six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant. Rather than discuss the constitutionality of the law, the high court is focused on how the law is enforced through civil lawsuits. Almost anyone, anywhere in the world, can sue a doctor who performs an abortion in Texas or anyone who "aides and abets" a woman trying to get an abortion and recover at least $10,000. Even conservative justices questioned how that type of enforcement could be used on other constitutional rights. The law remains in effect for now. 

   

Texas v. the Federal Government

The federal government is suing Texas, and Texas is suing the federal government. On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the State of Texas over its controversial election reform law that bans 24-hour voting, drive-thru voting and makes it illegal for elections officials to send out mail-in ballot applications unless a voter asks for one. The Justice Department says the new law will disenfranchise voters. On Twitter, the attorney general and governor both wrote they're ready for the legal fight.

Then on Friday, Texas sued the Biden administration over its COVID-19 vaccine policy for large businesses. The policy designates COVID-19 as a workplace hazard and makes businesses with 100 or more employees require employees get a COVID-19 vaccine or submit to weekly testing. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton calls the rule a "breathtaking abuse of federal power."

   

Princeton Gerrymandering Project

This week, two additional lawsuits were filed challenging Texas's newly drawn political maps. The lawsuits argue the maps don't reflect the growth in Texas, which is overwhelmingly driven by minorities, and that the maps instead dilute minority voters. The groups suing the State aren't the only ones calling the maps unfair. The Princeton University Gerrymandering Project gave Texas low, and in some cases failing, grades on the new maps. Helen Brewer, a legal analyst for the project, joined KVUE to talk about Texas's scores.

Ashley Goudeau: First, tell us a little bit about the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

Helen Brewer: "Sure. So we perform nonpartisan analysis of redistricting maps as they are being proposed and adopted across the country in all 50 states. We are looking at proposed congressional maps and state legislative maps, and our analysis again is nonpartisan. It's really data-driven, mathematically based, and we're trying to really bring a clear picture to all the math, data and law that's going on in the redistricting process."

Goudeau: So talk to us about the data and how you guys use it. Your team there puts out report cards on each state's new political maps drawn through the redistricting process. So what's the criteria for the grades?  

Brewer: "Sure. So the way that we generate our grades, we sort of have a couple of things going on. So our grades are mostly focused on partisan fairness and when, for each state, we run an ensemble computer program of up to 1 million maps. And so this is a computer simulation of again up to a million different maps that could be created in a particular state and that is specified to that state's geography and also the state's own specific redistricting criteria, which can vary from state to state. And then when we get a proposed map from a commission or a legislature in a state, we compare it to that ensemble of 1 million maps. And if it lines up with the vast majority of those maps, especially again, we're mostly looking at partisan fairness, that is generally going to push it toward a better grade. And if it's an outlier that really extremely favors one party or another and is an outlier even among 1 million computer-generated maps, that's generally going to push it toward a lower grade. And we figure all this analysis out by looking at recent voter behavior and elections data from whichever state it is that we're looking at. We also produce minority representation metrics, although that does not factor into our letter grade. And I think that's really important to note because it's also an important piece of redistricting."

Goudeau: So let's chat a little bit about the grades Texas earned for its maps starting with the State House map. Talk to us about the grade for that one.

Brewer: "Sure. So the final State House map in Texas received an overall grade of C. It received a C in partisan fairness, an F in competitiveness and then a C in geographic features. And on the partisan fairness front, which is a central focus of our analysis, that map looks like it's going to produce a slight Republican advantage, and it also looks like it's going to advantage incumbents, so people who are already elected to office will probably have an advantage in keeping their seats under this map."

Goudeau: Alright. What about the State Senate?

Brewer: "Sure, so the final State Senate map did receive an F on our report card … It looks like it is going to produce a significant Republican advantage and again, that incumbent advantage we're seeing in our data analysis of the State Senate map. And it looks like it's only going to produce one competitive district out of all the possible districts, and that contributes to that low grade and competitiveness and partisan fairness."

Goudeau: And so let's talk about the congressional map. It also received an F from your team.

Brewer: "Yes. And the breakdown on this grade, again, as you said, is an F overall – an F in partisan fairness, a C in competitiveness and an F in geographic features. So again, this map is likely to produce a significant Republican advantage. We'd expect it to generally yield 13 Democratic seats and 25 Republican seats in the congressional delegation and only two competitive districts, one of which is just barely on, you know, just barely competitive right on the edge of what we designate as the competitive zone. And that F in geographic features is pretty notable in the congressional map. There are some pretty outlandishly shaped districts all across the state in that map."

Goudeau: You know, some people would like to say or to point out that these maps are going to have a Republican advantage because there is a Republican majority in the state of Texas and in the Texas Legislature, and therefore you would expect to see maps that would reinforce that dominance that the party has. Why do you think that that's problematic?

Brewer: "So our analysis takes account again of voter behavior in the last several elections, and we're looking generally back to about 2016. We don't want to go back too far because that doesn't reflect current voting behavior. So our analysis accounts for the the composition of Democratic and Republican voters in Texas. And like I said, we compare these maps to a computer generated set of up to 1 million maps. And even compared to those, these maps are outliers that favor the Republican Party even more than we'd expect to see a state, even with a significant number of Republican voters like Texas producing."

Goudeau: Talk to us about what a solution for some of this gerrymandering, these biased maps, would be.  

Brewer: "Yeah, well, something that would require sort of a lot of change, you know, legislative and maybe state constitutional change in Texas, would be reform that some states have adopted, which is independent redistricting commissions where independent citizens are placed on a commission to redraw the maps. We've seen that in Colorado. Arizona also has a longstanding independent redistricting commission. And there's a handful of other states that recently adopted them as well. And out of those states where the commissions are completely made up of citizens and not legislators, so far we're seeing pretty fair maps come out of those states. Now, barring such a huge overhaul from Legislature to commission, another really important piece of the redistricting process that can be done and help make things fair, regardless of whether it's a commission or the Legislature, is really listening to and providing opportunity for public input on the maps. Because redistricting should be an opportunity for districts to be drawn that allow voters to choose their politicians, not the other way around, is a common phrase that folks say in the redistricting space. And really listening to what's going to be best for communities and what's going to provide them the strong voice that they need to make their concerns heard in state legislatures and in Congress should be an important part of the redistricting process. And if redistrictors really take account of those concerns, it can produce maps that honor the people and their, the different communities interests, as opposed to partisan, more partisan motives."

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