Q&A with Michael Li, redistricting expert

Michael Li

Editor’s note:  This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity. You can find the full interview with Li on The Daily Texan Facebook page. 

The Daily Texan: Can you give us a rundown of the problems with Texas’ most recent electoral maps?

Michael Li: Texas was the fastest growing state between 2000 and 2010 by far. It gained 4.3 million people. Out of that 4.3 million people, about 65 percent were Latino, and another 23 percent were African American, so almost 90 percent of Texas’ population gain is Latino or African American, and if you add the Asians in there, it’s over 90 percent. It’s because of that population gain that Texas gets four new congressional seats, and it’s important to note that the Anglo population growth in Texas was so slow that if you just relied on Anglos, Texas wouldn’t have gained a single new congressional seat. Zero.

You would think, out of that, Texas would create new electoral opportunities for African Americans or Latinos, particularly the fast-growing Latino population, when it came time to draw the maps in 2011, but the Texas Legislature decided they weren’t going to do that. They didn’t create any new seats at all for African Americans or Latinos. They created four new seats that were controlled by white Republicans, and that led to a lot of litigation.

DT: How did the Legislature draw these maps to end up with this outcome?

ML: It’s a very closed door process. It’s a lot of political operatives and things like that drawing maps. Republican members of Congress got to look at the new maps and almost nobody else did, and certainly no Democrats got to look at them.

And you found really minute changes. So you found, for example, Lamar Smith, a Congressman in this part of the state, asking that the San Antonio Country Club be drawn into his district, or a Congressman up in North Texas asking that the private school where his grandchildren went be drawn into his district.

While Republicans got input, almost nobody else did. But the number one way that you do this is that you go out of your way to divide the Latino or African American populations in places like Dallas, Fort Worth and that means splitting apart cities and towns.

DT: What might be the path forward in addressing some of these issues in Texas?

ML: It’s hard to see Texas doing the sort of reforms (independent redistricting commissions) that states like California and Arizona did, where they could use citizen ballots initiatives to put things on the ballot and overrun the legislature and the political class. You can’t do that in Texas because the legislature has to approve any constitutional amendment, and that’s the only way you could do this.

There needs to be a robust discussion about why fixing (district representation) is better and why it is in the best interest of everyone. This decade alone should tell you why Texas should fix this because we’re in year seven of this decade, and the census was in 2010, and maps won’t be filed until sometime in 2018 or even later, which is remarkable.

It really is important at the end of the day that our maps be reflective of the states and the communities in the state. That’s what the framers wanted, John Adams famously said how Congress and the legislatures should be exact portraits or miniatures of the people as a whole. That’s not happening in a state like Texas. The legislature doesn’t look like Texas, so important voices aren’t at the table talking about issues, whether it’s the bathroom bill or funding for Medicaid expansion.

Li is senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at the New York University School of Law.