Public hearings aimed at giving communities input in Texas’ redistricting process have been on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, but advocates say state leaders need to figure out a way to start them back up.
Fair Maps Texas, a nonpartisan coalition of voting rights groups focused on redistricting, sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen on Monday, requesting that officials in the state Legislature figure out a way to safely resume hearings remotely.
“While the House and Senate may be constrained by their respective rules, we hope that both chambers will look for ways to work within the rules and with the Governor and executive agencies to enact procedures that are safe and allow public participation and transparency,” the groups wrote.
Texas lawmakers are set to begin redrawing political boundaries early next year. How districts are drawn affects how much representation certain groups get in the Legislature. So if a district is drawn to encompass more Latinos, for example, their representatives will be forced to take up issues important to them. The redistricting process is supposed to happen once every 10 years.
Public input hearings are an opportunity for residents to give lawmakers personal context and information about where their communities are located.
David Jones, a Dallas attorney and president of the nonpartisan group Clean Elections Texas, said the hearings give lawmakers information about communities from people on the ground.
“They have to hear from the public in order to know how those communities have changed,” Jones said. “There is only so much they can learn from census data and other statistical information they will have access to.”
In the past decade, there has been explosive growth in Texas’ major cities and surrounding suburbs. Jones said that's led to a lot of changes in the distribution of population, which will “have to be accounted for when the Legislature goes to draw new district lines.”
Texas’ last redistricting process led to a number of lawsuits that claimed state lawmakers discriminated against black and Latino voters by drawing up political lines in 2011 that weakened their influence. Federal courts struck down those maps, and lawmakers were forced to change them.
The new maps were challenged again and struck down, but were later mostly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, one of the lower court judges who weighed in on the case, argued state officials failed to hold an equitable and transparent redistricting process the last time they were required to draw new lines.
“Given the record produced in 2011, the State must implement a process that, by any reasonable definition, is fair and open,” he wrote in a ruling.
That’s why Fair Maps Texas officials are asking state leaders to take steps to ensure these remote hearings are as transparent as possible. Among their list of recommendations, the coalition is asking for a “clear written guidance on how citizens will be able to watch hearings and how they can sign up to testify virtually, by phone, or submit written testimony… an online portal to allow written testimony to be submitted online… [and that] all members of a public body participating in a meeting or proceeding to be clearly audible and visible at all times.”
The groups also want votes to be recorded and public and that all hearings be posted online with sufficient notice.
“We don’t feel like we are asking for the moon,” Jones said. “All of us are understanding that it’s going to take some time for government to adjust, but it’s been some time already.”
Jones said many governmental entities – including small city or town councils in Texas – have figured out how to hold meetings that include public input. He said it shouldn’t be that difficult for lawmakers to figure out.
There is also a time crunch, Jones said. Lawmakers need to hear from a lot of different communities across the state, and the next legislative session is several months away.
“They can’t just all wait until right before the legislative session,” he said. “It has to begin now.”
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