Hearings Underway, But Real Redistricting Work Likely Delayed Until Special Legislative Session

The pandemic has slowed the process of getting census data and maps to states. Without those tools, substantive decisions about political boundaries are on hold.

By Jill Ament & Caroline CovingtonJanuary 29, 2021 1:52 pm

Lawmakers at the Texas Capitol have, in a way, started the once-a-decade redistricting process. But they’re doing so without a very important tool: census data.

Because of the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau is taking longer to deliver data to the states. In the meantime, lawmakers are holding hearings to gather public opinion, says Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.

“What they’re doing is holding hearings, just listening to people. But really, that’s much more for show than anything else,” Jones told Texas Standard, “because you really can’t do the real work with redistricting until you get the actual maps and the actual data that allow you to start playing around with different options.”

He says census data won’t show up until around April, and maps won’t be available until the summer. The regular legislative session ends in May. That means Texas Gov. Greg Abbott will have to call a special session to complete the redistricting process.

Completing that process is important because Texas is expected to potentially gain three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives as a consequence of the 2020 census count. What’s more, politicians planning to run in 2022 need to file by November, and they can’t file until the new district boundaries are decided.

Jones says while redistricting is often contentious, it will be different this year because Texas is no longer under federal supervision for its redistricting process. A federal court had found its 2011 redistricting process unconstitutional and discriminatory. But Texas is no longer required to get federal approval for its political maps.

Now, with Republicans still in the majority in the statehouse, any concerns Democrats may have about redistricting will have to be taken up in court. Jones says that process could take years.

“[It would be] incumbent on the Democratic plaintiffs to prove that, beyond a reasonable doubt, that those maps unfairly discriminate against ethnic and racial minorities,” Jones said. “And it probably means that whatever maps the Republicans passed, while they will be challenged in court, may stay and be used while that court case is underway.”

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