Reading the Redistricting Tea Leaves

What havoc will redistricting wreak this time?

Immigration. Bailouts. Government spending. Unemployment.

These are the headline issues of this election. But this election is crucial for another reason that hasn't been discussed much, yet will make an impact for the next decade: the drawing of new political lines based on the decennial federal census. And if there is any group of people that knows the effect redistricting can have, it's Austinites.

For almost its entire history, Austin (and Travis County) was completely contained within the boundaries of Congressional District 10. That, of course, changed in the infamous and unprecedented mid-decade redistricting spearheaded by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. State legislatures can be as partisan as they want in drawing the maps, as long as they don't violate anyone's civil rights, and that was fully felt in the 2003 fiasco. I won't recount the whole sordid history here, but the short version is: The GOP chopped up Travis into districts 10, 21, and 25, with District 10 stretching from West Lake Hills to suburban Houston, forcing most of liberal Austin to live under Repub­lican representation since 2005. (Similarly clever map-drawing in 2001 caused Travis' state House delegation to go from a 4-1 Democratic advantage to a 3-3 split, though Republican incompetence and smart Dem campaigning turned Travis solid blue in 2006.) While Democrats got very close to taking the Texas House in 2008, odds this cycle are high that Republicans will still hold the reins after Nov. 2.

Given Austin's population growth, you can bet that after the 2011 legislative session, our districts will be radically different yet again. Assuming no more Tom DeLay-like shenanigans or court orders, they will be the districts we live with until 2021. At the federal level, Texas will pick up an estimated three to four new seats, on top of the 32 we already have (out of the total of 435). In the state Legislature, there are 150 House seats and 31 in the Senate, with boundaries shifting according to population.

Among the local possibilities: State Sen. Kirk Watson's District 14 will almost certainly shrink, but Republicans might try to carve into his liberal urban base rather than make the logical move, taking away the conservative western precincts. In the House, Travis County could grow from six reps to seven, and maybe Williamson and Hays will add on, too. West Texas, steadily losing population to urbanization trends, will lose at least one seat.

And who knows how Austin's congressional delegation will look – many of the same imaginative minds will be drawing the lines as did in the last debacle.

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election, redistricting, District 10, Travis County, District 25, Kirk Watson

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