As Data Drops, City Redistricting Panel Sprints

Nov. 1 is the deadline for Austin's ICRC to adopt new City Council district map


Illustration by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

The U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to release the 2020 census data needed to redraw federal, state, and local electoral districts this Thursday, Aug. 12, four days ahead of schedule – but months later than in past redistricting years, following setbacks incurred because of the COVID-19 crisis and meddling by the prior president and his appointees. So time is tight for those who need to redraw maps in time for 2022 elections.

In Austin, that's the 14-member Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission that's been convened to redraw the 10 City Council districts, whose boundaries were adopted by the inaugural ICRC in 2013, after voter approval of the 10-1 plan that transformed the formerly at-large Council and created the ICRC. The provisions of the City Charter that control its work couldn't legally be adjusted to account for the 2020 census delays; already tasked with an intensive process and mandatory public engagement, the ICRC will have to go into overdrive in order to meet its hard-and-fast deadline to adopt the final map by Nov. 1. (The commission's authority over the map is final.)

Even with the tight turnaround, ICRC Chair Christina Liu Puentes is hopeful the commission will have a preliminary map by the end of this month. After that, the ICRC must take public comment for 14 days before producing a final map, and then receive more public comment before that's adopted. The technical elements will be handled by the commission's mapping expert, attorney George Korbel, who was subcontracted through the ICRC's general counsel, renowned civil rights lawyer David Richards.

Puentes said the commission hasn't explicitly discussed yet whether to start with a completely new map or use the existing map and modify its boundaries: "Hypothetically, if we were to scrap the old maps and start over, there are huge political implications to that." Regardless, district boundaries could change significantly to make them as equal in population as possible. Austin has added an estimated 200,000 residents since the 2010 census, bringing the ideal target population of each district to about 99,500. That growth has not occurred evenly among the 10 current districts, as this week's data release will reveal in detail.

The ICRC task is not simply to divide Austin into 10 equal pieces; Puentes says it also must create and maintain minority opportunity districts as required by the federal Voting Rights Act – still in effect, despite U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have gutted its enforcement. Right now, Austin has four such districts, all anchored along and east of I-35. The charter provisions also define principles the ICRC must follow: "To the extent possible," says Puentes, "we are trying to protect the geographic integrity of local neighborhoods and communities of interest from unnecessarily being broken up."

If the commission were to just go off the numbers alone, explained Puentes, lines might be drawn that are racially representative, geographically contiguous, and equal in size, but don't account for these local communities of interest. That's why public input is so important for Austin's redistricting, said Puentes – and why the ICRC fills a critical role in helping integrate public comments into the mapping process. "That's really the magic sauce of the independent redistricting process; we can fully take into consideration the public's concerns without any political interference."


See the most up-to-date schedule of ICRC public forums, or submit feedback, at speakupaustin.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, City Council districts, 10-1 City Council plan, U.S. Censu Bureau, 2020 U.S. Census, Christina Liu Puentes, George Korbel, David Richards, Austin City Charter, minority opportunity districts, Voting Rights Act, redistricting Austin

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