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Redistricting: Devils and Details

The ICRC attempts to increase minority representation

By Elizabeth Pagano, Fri., Nov. 8, 2013

Current Icrc draft map
Current Icrc draft map
Illustration courtesy of ICRC

For years, minority representation on Austin's City Council has been either the direct or indirect result of a decades-old racial accommodation. The "gentleman's agreement" – unofficially reserving two of seven seats for minority members – enabled the initial integration of the dais. But in subsequent years, even as the demographics of the city changed dramatically, the "agreement" has also limited Council minority representation to one African-American member and one Hispanic member at any given time.

Now, with next year's advent of 10 single-member districts, hopes are high that next November, that ratio will change. The Independent Citizens Redistricting Com­mission has taken seriously its charge to increase minority representation, tackling the potential minority-opportunity districts first. They made sure those districts were shored up before moving to the rest of the map – even though that has led to odd district shapes elsewhere in the central city.

But Austinites approved single-member districting when federal "pre-clearance" remained in effect – meaning any maps drawn by the commission would have been subject to prior U.S. Department of Justice approval. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required pre-clearance, it removed an additional check that looked specifically at minority representation in newly-drawn districts. As it stands now, once the ICRC certifies its final map, it becomes law, and court challenges will have to be brought after the fact.

That makes it more likely the map will be in effect for the next decade, and the commissioners are looking closely at the (now three Hispanic, one African-American) minority-opportunity districts – those where minority voters could have determining influence on the election – while self-appointed advocate/observers hope to fill the pre-clearance role of the DOJ.

One potential pitfall is that to remain as consistent as possible, the ICRC has chosen to rely on 2010 census data. That may have been the sanest choice but, considering the rapid growth of Austin, the data is already stale. City Demographer Ryan Robinson has kind words for the job the ICRC had done so far, and for the advantages of having a commission made up of people other than the usual suspects. But he is keenly aware of the problems inherent in using 3-year-old data for a map that will not be revised until the next decade.

For example, immigration patterns reflect a diminished African-American population that continues to drop (at least in proportionate terms), presenting problems regardless of how well-drawn the African-American opportunity district may be. Right now, that district (designated District 1) is just above 29% black voters, and nearly everyone agrees that's about as well as it can be drawn.

"I think regardless of how strong of an African-American opportunity district you can draw, it's diminishing as we speak," said Robinson. "The latest ICRC black district draft that I saw is weaker today [in demographic terms] than it was three years ago. And it will be weaker seven years from now than it is today. So that's a huge challenge, and a huge shift, and I don't necessarily know how you solve that challenge."

Simultaneously, Southeast Austin is becoming increasingly Hispanic, leading to concerns about "packing" – that is, a "too-high" percentage of Hispanic voters who might otherwise have greater influence in a neighboring district – a collateral effect that can also segregate communities and limit their representation.

On the preliminary ICRC map, District 2 had a Hispanic population of over 70%. That, according to ICRC legal counsel, could be considered packing. The commission drafted a new district, lowering that figure to under 70% (at least according to 3-year-old data). Even so, the dense Hispanic population in Dove Springs and Montopolis led Austinites for Geographic Representation consultant Peck Young to declare that combining the two areas – no matter how much residents might clamor for it – just wouldn't be possible without packing.

And that raises yet another potential problem with using census data: Because it is agnostic as to citizenship, it may not tell the whole story. "We think we know the population, but how many of them are international immigrants without documentation? You really don't have rock-solid data to use," said Robinson. "We won't be able to test the performance of these districts until we have an election. It's kind of like buying a car without being able to take it for a test drive."

At the Oct. 30 meeting at the Asian Amer­i­can Resource Center, members of the Asian-American community expressed a hope that their population could be better represented. A quick scramble made it clear that Asian-American population figures weren't available with the maps. That was rectified the next day, and shows the district with the highest Asian-American population (District 6 in the ICRC draft) at a relatively paltry 13%. This isn't entirely unexpected – some of the strongest proponents of the hybrid (8-2-1) system that was also on last year's ballot were from the Asian-Amer­ican community, who worried that their dispersed population couldn't be represented well in a strictly geographic system.

At that same meeting, members of LULAC District 12 presented its map, declaring that they had solved the problem of how to draw four predominately Hispanic districts (the ICRC draft has three). It immediately became clear where that extra district came from – the map's District 3 had an African-American population of just over 26%, but also a Hispanic population of over 50%. Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder called the LULAC map "insulting." He said he doubted the map would be adopted, but the suggestion was still sufficiently alarming that he felt it important to note that such a map would damage race relations in the city.

Linder subsequently sent a letter to the commissioners, warning them away from altering the current African-American opportunity district. Such a change, he wrote, "would be met with the best legal minds in our arsenal," and he added that he had concerns about certain [unnamed] commissioners "who have demonstrated a willingness to flirt with political chaos and cronyism." He continued, "For the sake of Austin's future, we hope the virtues exhibited by the majority of the commission will prevail over the vices displayed at times by a few on the commission. We pray that fairness and prudence prevail."

We could all vote for that.

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