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The biggest blow to Texans’ right to vote is not in the election laws. It’s in the political maps, where voters’ choices are overwhelmed by the partisan desires of politicians.
Redistricting removes voter choices, undermines public opinion, and makes government less responsive and less respected when it gets out of control of its citizens.
Politicians have become so good at drawing political maps that they spoil democracy. Few races for the Texas Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation are competitive in November; districts are drawn for Republicans or Democrats to win, with few designed to promote competition between parties.
The real choices, such as they are, are left to the slice of voters who decide in primary elections which candidates their parties will send to easy wins in November. Much of the 2022 elections for Congress and the Legislature are already behind us.
The effect? Rather than casting a wide net to attract voters, politically polarized legislative bodies produce polarized maps that attract small groups of supporters who vote in primary elections, such as those in March that drew fewer than 1 in 5 registered voters this year. More voters in the general election are finding themselves with uncompetitive November picks in constituencies drawn for one party or another, but not both.
Texas lawmakers drew new maps last year after the latest census figures came in from the federal government, telling us how many people are here now and exactly where they live. Texas gained two new congressional seats as a result of the state’s growth over the past decade, and likely would have won a third had all of the state’s residents been accurately counted.
Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in 65 of the state’s 150 House of Representatives districts, while losing to Donald Trump in 85 other districts and by 5.6 percentage points statewide. It might as well have served as a template for the lawmakers who drew the maps last year. Their map of the House has 66 Democratic seats and 84 Republican seats.
The average Republican candidate in this 2020 election outperformed Trump, winning by 9.1 percentage points. In the new House map, House District 112, where State Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, is incumbent, those candidates gained 7.9 percentage points — better than Trump’s performance. It’s the most competitive Republican district on the House map, but based on recent history, Democrat Elva Curl will struggle to win.
On the other side, four of the most competitive Democratic districts have gone to statewide candidates by less than 5 percentage points in 2020. After next month’s primary run-off produces the party’s nominees , three of them will be among the few truly contested legislative races in November: HD-118 in San Antonio, HD-70 in Collin County and HD-37 in Harlingen. The fourth race, in South Texas’ House District 80, is nearly over: Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, has no Republican opponent in November.
Texas Senate districts are even less competitive. Of the 19 districts drawn for the Republican advantage, Trump’s smallest margin of victory – 13.1 percentage points – was in SD-9, where incumbent Senator Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, will face Democrat Gwenn Burud in November. Trump’s victory was a low point in that district: the average Republican candidate in a statewide race gained 18.2 percentage points there. It’s a tough country for Democrats.
Texas Democratic Senate precincts are only slightly more competitive. Republicans have attracted a dozen seats that would be difficult for their own candidates to win – giving ground to Democrats but also blocking the GOP’s majority hold on the Senate. Only one Democrat, Sen. Beverly Powell of Fort Worth, has been fenced in a Republican district. She won her primary but then dropped out of the race, saying there was no way a Democrat could win it: Trump won there by 15.8 percentage points, and Republican candidates across the the state, on average, gained 19.2 percentage points in 2020. As unhappy as Democrats were over her decision, she’s likely right about the district.
Congress cards in Texas are also non-competitive. Two dozen of the 38 districts are safely Republican, 11 are safely Democratic, and one is truly competitive — at least on paper.
The last – CD-28, where Laredo’s Rep. Henry Cuellar is in a runoff with Jessica Cisneros, also of Laredo – is a wildcard. It’s a Democratic district, where Trump lost to Biden by 7 percentage points and the average Republican candidate statewide lost 9.5 percentage points in 2020. But Cisneros came within 4 points percentage of beating Cuellar two years ago, and the FBI raided his home and office. just before the primaries this year.
Such news can overwhelm a district’s partisan story, and Cuellar is in a race even if his district seems safe for Democrats. You will probably hear a lot about it; the way lawmakers drew these maps, all but a handful of races are uninteresting or uncompetitive or both.
They made the choices that were once left to voters.
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