It’s only natural that in this presidential election year the public should focus on the race for the White House. But we should remember there are also races in Texas for U. S. senator and U. S. representative, and for hundreds of state legislative and county races as well. Of particular importance are the races for the state House of Representatives. Our local race was decided in the Republican runoff on July 14, whose winner will be elected without opposition to the House this fall. But the outcome of many other state House elections is currently in doubt. How they’ll be decided may have profound implications not only for Texas, but for the entire nation.
State legislative elections held in years ending in zero are of special significance because the legislatures will be required to redraw election district boundaries not only for their own members, but for their states’ delegations to the U. S. House of Representatives as well. The need to do so is mandated by both the U. S. Constitution and various U. S. Supreme Court decisions.
The Constitution requires that a census be conducted every ten years. Our first census was conducted in 1790. The census is used to determine which states gain more U. S. Representatives. States whose respective populations are most rapidly growing, such as Texas, are allotted more representatives—Texas is likely to gain 3, giving it 39 representatives to elect in 2022. Because federal law caps membership in the U. S. House at 435, more slowly growing states, as well as states actually losing population, will have their congressional delegations reduced accordingly.
The Supreme Court also requires that all election districts for the same legislative office in the same jurisdiction be of the same population. To allow one congressional district, or one state senate or house district, to have more people than another is to violate the “Equal Protection of the Laws” clause in the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution: If congressional district 1 has twice the population of congressional district 2, then, says the Supreme Court, the residents of district 1 have only half the representation, and therefore half the protection, that residents of district 2 have. This, says the Supreme Court, is unconstitutional malapportionment.
But while the Supreme Court prohibits malapportionment, it has historically been more tolerant of “gerrymandering,” defined by the Texas government text I use as “the practice of drawing district lines in such a way as to give candidates from a certain party, ethnic group, or faction an advantage.” The Supreme Court has on occasion ruled that gerrymandering to reduce African American or Latino representation in legislatures is an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause. But it normally allows gerrymandering merely to help or hurt a political party as constitutionally acceptable. Therefore, efforts by Texas’s Republican-dominated state legislature to gerrymander to maximize the number of Republicans elected to the state legislature and to the U. S. House of Representatives have withstood constitutional challenge.
But this could all change should Texas Democrats continue to make gains in the state legislature. Two years, Democrats won 12 state house seats previously held by Republicans, thereby increasing their membership from 55 to 67 in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Could they capture House in 2020? They need win only 9 more seats to do so. The political omens are favorable: As I noted in a recent column, the shrinkage of Anglos as a percentage of the Texas population and the narrowing of victory margins for Republicans running for statewide office, as well as Democratic gains in the state legislature, all spell trouble for the GOP in the Lone Star State.
To make matters worse, polls are showing Joe Biden with unexpected strength in Texas: He’s either running neck-and-neck or slightly ahead of President Trump who, in 2016, carried Texas but by a smaller-than-usual margin for GOP presidential candidates. Biden’s strength means trouble not only for Trump, but for Republican candidates in “down ballot” contests, including state legislative races. A strong showing by Biden, even if he ultimately loses Texas, may well inspire more Democrats to vote, and not only for him, but for down ballot candidates as well. Like Beto O’Rourke is thought to have done in 2018, Biden may well be able to increase the number of Democratic officeholders, especially in the state House.
And should Democrats take the House, they’ll lack the strength to gerrymander in their own favor, but they’ll have the strength to block further Republican gerrymandering. Plans to redraw state legislative and congressional district boundaries will have to win the approval of both the Democratic House as well as the state Senate, which apparently everyone believes the Republicans can still hold. No doubt the Democrats, will refuse to go along with the further aggrandizement of the GOP. Indeed, should the Democrats ever win the both houses of the state legislature, as well as the governorship, they will certainly use their power to not only block but reverse the Republican gerrymandering of the last two decades, and make the process work to their own advantage instead.
As for national implications, one obvious implication is that with the Democrats controlling the state House, they can block further GOP efforts to add more Republicans to Texas’s growing congressional delegation, and add some more Democrats instead. Sending more Democrats to the U. S. House will weaken the Republican minority and reduce the GOP’s chances for recapturing the House in the foreseeable future. Moreover, it will strengthen the drive of the Democrats to remake the Electoral College to make it easier for the Democrats to win the presidency in future elections. How sending more Democrats to the U. S. House, and how doing so will help remake the Electoral College, will be the subject of a future column.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.