Analysis: Texas legislators aren’t ready to take self-interest out of redistricting

Salman Bhojani suspended his Texas Senate campaign after state legislators drew his home out of the district he sought to represent. (Ben Torres For The Texas Tribune, Ben Torres For The Texas Tribune)

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Legislators don’t play fair when they’re drawing political maps. Republican Texas and Democratic Illinois are recent examples, according to the Redistricting Report Card, a collaboration between the Princeton Electoral Innovation Lab and RepresentUS. Both states got failing grades on their latest redistricting efforts.

Are independent commissions any better?

Legislators have a built-in conflict of interest. They get elected from the districts they’re drawing, and they’ve become very good at protecting themselves and, when they’re in the majority, bolstering their party’s dominance when designing new maps. The idea behind independent commissions is that you can’t take politics out of redistricting, but you can remove that conflict.

The Texas maps signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott are testament to that. In a state where President Donald Trump, the top Republican candidate, got 52.1% of the vote last year, he would have prevailed in 57% of the new state House districts, in 61% of the new Senate districts and in 65% of the 38 Texas seats in the U.S. House.

The Redistricting Report Card gave the state’s new congressional map an F for partisan fairness, saying it gives Republicans a “significant” advantage. It got a C for competitiveness — a measure of whether either party has a chance to win in the new districts — and another F for geographic features, judging the sprawling districts that split counties “more than necessary” as deficient.

They gave the Texas House map an F for competitiveness and C’s for fairness and geographic features. And the Senate map scored a C for partisan fairness, but F’s for competitiveness and geography.

Texas maps are drawn by the Legislature and signed by the governor. And as usual, the lawsuits over the new districts are already underway. Judges could approve them as is, make changes or order lawmakers to make changes.

In Arizona, a congressional map drawn by an independent commission got an A for partisan fairness and C’s for competitiveness and geography. Colorado’s commission-drawn congressional map got the same scores — an A for partisan fairness and C’s for competitiveness and geography.

“In general, citizen-led commissions are drawing fairer maps,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, in an email. He said those commissions are more transparent and more attentive to community concerns.

“In contrast, where state legislators control or have a significant hand in the process, we are seeing maps that are less competitive and include more seats designed to remain in the hands of the party that drew the lines,” Podowitz-Thomas said.

He pointed to maps in Illinois, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia as legislature-drawn maps that are “unfair to voters,” and to commission-drawn maps in Colorado, Michigan and Arizona as examples of fair maps.

Texas lawmakers, who were in Austin for a regular session and three special sessions this year, weren’t interested in handing their crayons to non-elected mapmakers.

During the regular legislative session earlier this year, several Texas lawmakers — all of them Democrats — filed legislation that would have amended the state Constitution, with voter approval, to create a redistricting commission here, but none got any traction. The House bills got committee hearings and then stalled out. The Senate versions were sent to committee and never seen again.

It’s hard to get someone who’s winning a competition to change the rules in a way that would make it harder for them to win. Redistricting is not a hot topic for most Texans, and lawmakers are more likely to suffer from the process at the hands of their elected political enemies than from their voters. Some are “paired” with colleagues into districts only one can win. Some are trapped in districts they can’t win.

On the other hand, most are protected in districts drawn to favor one party or the other, and Republicans protected their majority — if these maps survive legal challenges — by making sure more of those unbalanced districts favor the GOP.

Given the chance to protect their political turf and to squeeze their foes, that’s what the Texas lawmakers did — just like their counterparts all over the U.S.