Congressional Line Dance Keeps Austin Voters On Their Toes

Aug 25, 2017

In the past two decades, congressional maps in Texas have changed six times. Those changes have often been felt here in Austin.

“Well, our congressman went from being [Lloyd] Doggett, to being [Michael] McCaul, and now we're in Bill Flores’ district,” says Eric Calistri, a resident of North Austin who has lived in the same house for about two decades.

A federal judge last week found that two of the state's congressional districts must be redrawn, including the one held by Democrat Lloyd Doggett.
Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT

“One thing I have learned is that [on] the Travis County website, you can go in and look at your ballot beforehand, and that’s something I have made a habit of," he says, "because sometimes you think you are going to vote for somebody, and you go in and all of sudden that name's not there anywhere on your ballot.”

This has become a familiar story in Austin. If you've live in the same place long enough here, you are likely to be drawn in and out of different congressional districts. That’s because for decades now, lawmakers have been drawing up maps – and courts have been striking them down.

Last week, a federal judge told state lawmakers that two congressional districts in Texas must be redrawn ahead of the 2018 election. One of the districts touches Austin — the one currently held by Doggett.

“That just creates chaos and confuses voters,” says Colin Strother, a Democratic political consultant in Austin. "That’s not good. It’s not good for campaigns, and it’s not good for the public at large."

Strother is relieved that Austin’s congressional seats could be redrawn. Right now, there are six different districts within the city limits. Five of those seats are held by Republicans.

Lawmakers drew those lines to dilute the voting power in this mostly liberal city – which is totally legal, as long as the lines are based on party affiliation and not race.

But the court overturned these district boundaries because it found they were drawn based on race. And even though this could help Democrats in the long run, Strother says, this is likely to confuse voters who aren't paying very close attention.

“From the political turnout standpoint, we like for the waters to be calm,” he says. “We don’t want voters to be intimidated by what’s going on around them. And we want them to feel comfortable and confident in engaging in the process. And when you have goal posts constantly moving – be it voter ID or district boundaries – we don’t like that because it creates chaos.”

Strother is also concerned that another impending change to the maps is bad for people who are thinking of running for public office.

He says he's heard more interest among Democrats thinking of running because of Donald Trump’s election.

“From a recruitment standpoint, it’s very difficult because you have to have all these qualified conversations," he says. "If this happens, if that happens, then would you be interested? And it’s hard to get people to commit to an unknown.”

Members of the Texas Democratic Party say they haven’t been waiting to engage with voters or possible recruits, though. Manny Garcia, the group’s deputy executive director, says Democrats are interested in engaging in the political process now – and he thinks the party shouldn’t miss that opportunity.

“For us, we thought we simply could not wait until decisions come down and the lines get drawn,” he says. “We needed to organize our communities now and respond to all of this energy that was happening now across the state and the country.”

Garcia says getting voters affected by the new maps up to speed on the changes could be a heavy lift, but he says it will be worth it for Austin. He says this map shake-up could mean the city finally gets its own congressional district.

“Austin will be able to have a district anchored in Travis County,” he says. “A truly City of Austin district, and Austin voters and Austin constituents will be able to come to this person and be able to handle federal issues with this person.”

Of course, it’s not totally clear whether the maps will end up being redrawn. The state decided not to agree to change them and instead appealed the court’s order to the U.S. Supreme Court.