Gerrymandering As A Campaign Issue
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Gerrymandering is becoming a campaign issue for Democrats. Ashley Lopez with member station KUT in Austin reports that, after years of court battles, Texas Democrats are taking their case over how political maps are drawn to the voters.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Justin Nelson is a Democrat running to replace Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton in November. On a recent hot, sunny day in Austin, Nelson held a bar crawl. He visited three different bars that were then just a few blocks of each other. And the kicker is, these three different bars were in three different congressional districts.
JUSTIN NELSON: It's now on the 25th, and you will see the line here. Oh, now we are back in the 35th district. We walked literally all of about 10 feet. And now we're going to walk all of three blocks, which is the third bar we're going to.
LOPEZ: And that bar is in Texas's 21st Congressional District.
NELSON: Even in this baking hot Austin sun, you can walk these three blocks without even being totally drenched in sweat because these districts are so close.
LOPEZ: The whole point of the event was to illustrate how Republican lawmakers in Texas drew district lines that dilute the voting power of liberal voters in Austin. Six different congressional districts include parts of the city, but only one of them is actually held by a Democrat. Nelson decided to run on this issue because he says Republicans drew those lines to hurt Democrats.
NELSON: No sane person would ever intentionally draw districts like this unless it was designed for a purpose. And the purpose of these districts is to discriminate.
LOPEZ: A Democrat hasn't been Texas's Attorney General since the '90s. Paxton, who currently holds that position, has supported Texas's maps and says it's OK for political parties to draw political maps in their favor. If Nelson wins, he would sit on the state's legislative redistricting board and be able to issue legal opinions on new voting maps. But in the meantime, the current maps are law.
MANNY GARCIA: We can do this at the Texas level. If Washington isn't going to get the job done, then we can do this at the state capitol.
LOPEZ: That's Manny Garcia with the Texas Democratic Party. He says if voters elect more Democrats to the state legislature and statewide positions, maps could be fair to them during the next time lawmakers redraw them.
GARCIA: There's a fierce urgency of now, to talk about this issue now and get prepared for when the census is done down the road and when the next redistricting cycle happens after 2021.
LOPEZ: Democrats around the country are mobilizing around the issue of gerrymandering as well. But whether it's enough to excite voters who often sit out midterm elections is another question. Jim Henson with The Texas Politics Project has done polling on this issue for years. He says Democrats are increasingly concerned about gerrymandering, but it doesn't mobilize them as issues like health care do.
JIM HENSON: I think if you're a Democrat going to mobilize non-habitual voters on the Democratic side, there are buttons you're going to try to push far before you push something that's relatively technical, like redistricting.
LOPEZ: But Henson says Democratic voters are becoming more politically aware of measures they say are aimed at suppressing Democratic votes. That includes things like the Texas voter ID law.
HENSON: Because of the way that politics have evolved in the state, you know, over the last couple of decades, all of these voting and election-related issues have become more salient and more partisan, particularly for Democrats.
LOPEZ: Voters in other parts of the country will also be weighing in on gerrymandering this fall. At least three states will have ballot measures aimed at reducing the role of party politics in redistricting. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.