A university divided

Holly Heinrich

Four different U.S. congressmen will represent students living on and around the UT campus, effectively shattering the voting power of a student body numbering 50,000, under the congressional map passed by the Texas Legislature on Tuesday.

On a map that looks like a Rorschach test, West Campus, Riverside, the main campus and much of North Campus and Far West are split four ways, fragmenting the University community as completely as the city of Austin itself will be fragmented by the new plan. West Campus is already part of an illogical district that stretches to San Antonio and into the rural counties northwest of that city. Riverside will be improbably included in a district that nearly reaches Fort Worth.

It’s a map that, like the many preceding it, is not based on geographical proximities, communities’ interests or any other reasonable standard. It’s a map based on the cold calculations of partisan politics. For years, state legislators have considered it natural that district lines should be drawn to give an advantage to whichever political party is in power at census time. Capitol insiders have long believed that average Texans don’t care and aren’t paying attention when elected officials are drawing up voting districts.

But that truism is worn out. When a map of our state’s voting districts looks like the world’s most convoluted jigsaw puzzle, it’s clear that many Texans are going to end up with representatives who have no business representing them, people who live in distant parts of the state and have distant priorities. That’s when redistricting ceases to be a politico’s game and starts to become an issue for regular Texans who want fair representation in their government.

The residents of Travis County, as well as those living in minority-majority areas throughout the state, have been given a particularly raw deal. Travis County residents are not a majority in any of the five districts that the county has been sliced into, which may make it nearly impossible to elect a congressman from the Austin area in any district. Essentially, this means those who live in our state’s capital may be without real congressional representation for the next 10 years. And although Texas’ African-American and Latino population accounts for more than 90 percent of the state’s growth in the past 10 years, the Texas Legislature has added only one new minority-majority congressional district, leading some legislators and analysts to believe that the plans will be overturned in court by the Voting Rights Act. The League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino civil rights group, has already filed a lawsuit to stop the redistricting legislation.
The plans go far beyond the petty power struggles in partisan politics. It raises fundamental concerns about whether legislators are denying thousands of Texans the ability to elect representatives who truly represent them. It doesn’t make sense to ask a congressman living on the Gulf Coast to represent Bastrop County or to ask a state senator from Laredo to represent South Austin (which, for reference, is roughly 230 miles away).

It’s time to create voting districts based on cities and communities, not whether the people within them vote Republican or Democrat. It’s time to return to the original idea of political representation, in which elected officials are connected to the people and places they represent and understand their unique interests and needs.

When lawmakers received criticism for heavy budget cuts throughout this legislative session, a number of them described their course of action as a “mandate from the people,” a choice justified by their very election. If these lawmakers truly believe their elections are mandates from the people of Texas, then they should be unafraid to run in logical districts that accurately represent the people of Texas.

Heinrich is a government sophomore.