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Politics

Texas Lawmakers Still Aren’t Holding Public Redistricting Hearings Ahead Of Next Year’s Legislative Session

The House Chambers inside the Texas State Capitol building in downtown Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The House Chambers inside the Texas State Capitol building in downtown Austin.

Voting groups in Texas want lawmakers to open up the state's redistricting process to the public before they redraw political boundaries next year.

Public hearings are aimed at giving communities input in the process. But since the pandemic, those meetings have completely stopped.

Stephanie Swanson, who works on redistricting and census issues for the League of Women Voters of Texas, said the Texas House had held only 13 of its 25 scheduled hearings in the months before the pandemic starting in September 2019.

“The Senate, however, has not held a single public input hearing,” she said, “which is very concerning.”

A coalition of civic groups, including the League, had sent letters to state lawmakers earlier this summer asking them to consider holding the meetings virtually. Swanson said she never received a response.

On Wednesday, the League — as well as other groups who have previously raised concerns — sent another round of letters to leaders in the Texas House and the Texas Senate.

“Although the need for creating a forum for holding virtual public input hearings is a new procedural necessity because of the COVID pandemic, the importance of facilitating public input into the legislative redistricting process is not new,” the groups wrote. “Public input, at every stage of the map-making process, is critical to a fair redistricting process and essential to compliance with the Voting Rights Act.”

Texas has a bad track record of compliance with the Voting Rights Act when it comes to redistricting. For example, Swanson said Texas lawmakers have been found by federal courts to have “racially discriminated or violated the Voting Rights Act in every redistricting cycle” in the past 50 years.

“This is very commonplace in Texas, unfortunately,” she said. “What we were hoping when we started this process back in 2019 was to add transparency and public involvement in the redistricting process.”

Swanson said these public hearings were suggested by courts last year in an effort to keep the state from discriminating against racial minorities in future redistricting processes.

“The reason that Texas actually holds them is because they have been in trouble for violating the Voting Rights Act so much,” Swanson said. “And so that’s something that courts like to see is that, ‘Did you try to include the public in the map-making process?'”

State lawmakers have claimed they can’t move the hearings to a virtual format because there are rules that prohibit virtual hearings in the legislature.

However, Swanson said she doesn't think these rules should apply to these public hearings.

“These are public input hearings — they are not voting on legislation that they would need an official body for,” she said. “They are not taking any official vote.”

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at alopez@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.

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