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Primaries for this year’s midterm elections are already underway. Across the country, these elections are happening in newly drawn districts, the result of redistricting after the latest census. As both parties work the politically fraught process to their advantage, special correspondent Karla Murthy reports from Texas on the contentious redistricting fight there.
Last week, Maryland announced it was delaying its gubernatorial primary election amid a legal challenge to its new electoral maps.
It's just the latest state embroiled in litigation as the result of redistricting — the redrawing of congressional and state legislative maps following the decennial census. It is a fraught political process as both parties work the system to their advantage.
Special correspondent Karla Murthy traveled to texas to see how the changing demographics have shaped the redistricting fight there.
March 1st was primary election day in Texas, and one place residents could cast their votes was at the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land, a suburb of Houston.
We saw voting centers happening in churches, we saw them happening in schools, And we really wanted to have a way to serve the community, just like those other centers do. So there's actually voting taking place right now here in the mosque. It's something we're very proud of.
Nabila Mansoor and her family of Pakistani descent are part of a growing immigrant population from South and East Asia – in Fort Bend, the most diverse county in the state.
It was always a very multicultural area. But in terms of the growth it has just changed dramatically. And much of that growth has been propelled by new immigrant communities coming in. There have been a lot of people moving to Texas. And a lot of them are attracted to suburbs like Sugar Land, Missouri City, really the Southwest area of Houston.
So when the 2020 census was underway, Mansoor, who's an attorney, wanted to make sure all of her new neighbors were counted. Census data is used to determine how much funding an area gets, for things like public schools and new roads. It's also used for redistricting – the process of redrawing voting maps to reflect population changes every ten years.
The census was the kind of the preliminary part, but the real, I would argue the real fight was in redistricting because that should translate into power in terms of voting.
But Mansoor says – that's not what happened. In Texas, the census showed that 95 percent of population growth in the last decade came from people of color. But when the state's congressional maps were redrawn last year, the Republican-controlled legislature created more white-majority districts. I'm standing in the center of Sugar Land, which used to fall under one Congressional District. But after redistricting last year, it's been carved up.
Under the old maps, the Asian-American population in Sugar Land, who tend to vote Democratic, was largely concentrated in Congressional district 22. The new map divied up the community among neighboring districts. What was left of the 22nd was roped in with a more rural white majority that tends to vote Republican.
Communities of color in Fort Bend County were really just right on the edge of being able to win political power. Karla Murthy: Michael Li is senior council for the Brennan Center at New York University Law School. He says the Texas suburbs – once a Republican stronghold – have now become some of the most diverse areas in the country and a lot more Democratic.
Republicans treated the suburbs really as hostile territory and it's something to be neutralized. And so across the board in Texas, what you see is the creation of these suburban rural districts, right where, where rural voters are being used to shore up Republican advantages.
With the influx of new voters, District 22, which had been a safe seat for Republicans for decades, had recently been trending purple. In the 2020 Congressional election a multiracial coalition supported Indian-American Sri Kulkarni, a Democrat. He sent out campaign materials in more than 10 different languages.
Although he lost, he came closer than any Democrat in years to flipping the seat and would have been the first Asian-American elected to Congress from Texas. Jennifer Cazares lives in Congressional District 22 and supported Kulkarni.
We had built this coalition of, you know, a group of people who were trying to, eventually elect a candidate of our choice and it feels like you can never win right and not win for your candidate, but just win to be heard.
She says the odds of a candidate like Kulkarni winning now are even slimmer.
Our voices are silenced, our communities are divided. And so those lines affect us and our political power.
Cazares joined one of several lawsuits that have been filed against the state of Texas, alleging the new maps discriminate against minority voters. Last December, the Department of Justice also sued the state .
As the Supreme Court has observed, a core principle of our democracy is that "Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around."
James Pressler is a Republican precinct chair in the Sugar Land area. Critics have pointed to Congressional District 22 and said, you know, the way these maps were drawn actually across the state of Texas have diluted the power of people of color.
I don't agree with that because I, as I've been a lifelong Republican, I'm seeing people of color enter into our party and run.
Pressler points to a handful of local races which had Republican candidates of color running.
Both sides work it to their advantage and they always blame the other side when they get when they don't get what they want. And you know, sometimes I think the Democrats always go to the race issue and it's really not accurate or fair. But it's, you know, both both both parties use it to their advantage when they can.
He cites Democratic-controlled legislatures in New York and Illinois that have also drawn maps aggressively in their favor.
Republicans are very angry about the maps in New York. Democrats are very angry about the maps in Texas….
Michael Li cautions that as districts become less competitive between Democrats and Republicans, they become more competitive within the parties.
The only thing that matters is the primary. And we know, you know, in Texas and elsewhere, the primary electorates of both parties are more ideological, more extreme. So I think there's the potential that this gerrymandering will produce greater polarization of both parties and make it harder for Congress to work.
He says some states have managed to create fair maps using independent redistricting commissions. They include Michigan, Colorado and California.
So I think that there definitely will be a push for more independent commissions. It is sometimes hard to do because it means the Legislature giving up power. But, you know, I think there's a lot of evidence now that commissions could be a really big part of the solution to the problems that we're seeing, both in terms of political fairness, but also in terms of racial fairness and representation.
Meanwhile, litigation over the maps in Texas could take years to resolve, leaving the newly drawn maps in place for the foreseeable future.
It's the waiting game, right? We're just waiting for things to change. And every time we get excited, it's like the goalposts just move a little bit further. But that doesn't mean their efforts aren't going to stop, and we're going to try to make sure that we get our voice heard in the new congressional district that we're in.
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