Voting groups say a list of locations Texas lawmakers proposed for public hearings ahead of the next round of political redistricting will give smaller cities an outsized role in the process.
The field hearings give lawmakers a chance to look beyond what's on a map and hear from community members directly about where their communities are located. Typically, these hearings are one way lawmakers make sure they aren't splitting up communities of color, which would violate the Voting Rights Act.
“You need people from the community to come in and tell them, ‘Hey, this is where our community is, and we need you to keep us whole so we can elect the candidate of our choice,'” said Stephanie Swanson, who works on redistricting and census issues for the League of Women Voters of Texas.
The hearings could happen as early as this summer, she said.
Voting groups say the Texas House Committee on Redistricting is considering holding the same number of hearings in cities like Marshall, Brenham, Rockport, Beaumont, Lufkin and the Edinburg/Weslaco area as in large cities like Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth San Antonio and El Paso.
The League – along with the Texas NAACP and the Texas Civil Rights Project – sent letters to Republican state Rep. Phil King, who chairs the committee, asking him to add more hearings in the state’s major cities.
“What we have been asking for is for them to reconsider them holding these field hearings – these public input hearings – in small towns and … holding more of them in our large metroplex areas,” Swanson said. “Because that is where most of our growth has been.”
In a letter sent to King in April, voting groups suggested the committee hold five total hearings for the Dallas/Fort Worth area, four hearings for the greater Houston area, two hearings in Bexar County and one hearing in Northern Travis/Southern Williamson Counties, Lubbock, Bell County, Corpus Christi and Brownsville.
“Rather than taking away the opportunity for citizens in Marshall, Lufkin, Rockport, or Beaumont to be heard, we would like to see you add additional locations that account for the demographic realities of the state,” the groups wrote in the letter.
While 47 percent of the state’s population lives in the Houston and DFW areas, the groups note, only 0.007 percent of the state lives in Marshall, Lufkin, Rockport and Beaumont.
“Yet, the Houston/DFW metroplexes get the same number of hearings as these cities,” they wrote.
In response to the letter, King said his committee is planning “to hold multiple hearings in each of those areas,” but did not commit to the groups’ exact request.
Swanson said the League and others are also asking legislative leaders to make sure they give the public at least a month’s notice before these input hearings. She said lawmakers should do all they can to make sure the public participates, like holding hearings later in the day. In 2010, Swanson said, there was low turnout in part because the hearings were held at 10 a.m. on weekdays.
In the past several years, federal courts have ruled that state lawmakers intentionally discriminated against racial minorities when they drew up political districts in 2011. In one ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas criticized the state’s redistricting effort for holding “hearings in hard-to-find locations with little notice” and not providing visible maps for the public.
“The fact that the current House Redistricting Committee is making similar problems really sends up a red flag as to – are they repeating the same mistakes they made in 2010?” Swanson said.