The 2020 census seemed doomed from the start: It was underfunded, understaffed and occurred during a pandemic. Regardless, the Texas Legislature is tasked with using census data to redraw political district lines by the time the 2021 session adjourns in May.
On top of logistical hiccups, this year’s undercount is expected to be “very, very high,” said Dallas state Rep. Rafael Anchía, who also chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
"Censuses are always difficult to competently execute, even when you play it straight," Anchía said. “And when you politicize it and then you accelerate the deadline, you depress response rates — there’s just no question.”
The newly drawn districts will set the stage for Texas politics over the next decade. Yet many experts are projecting a severe undercount, particularly in communities with large numbers of immigrants and other hard-to-reach populations. That could ultimately translate to less political representation and a slash in federal funding.
It was already hard enough for census workers to reach underrepresented communities, but former President Donald Trump made the task more difficult by pushing for a citizenship question. Even though the courts rejected Trump’s proposal, his anti-immigrant rhetoric scared many from participating, particularly in North Texas, Anchía said.
The last census saw around a 1% statewide undercount, he said; this time around, the number could hover between 5% and 8%.
For every percentage point, Anchía said, Texas loses $300 million in annual federal funding, equaling $3 billion over the course of a decade. That’s money not going toward transportation, housing, health care, food, infrastructure and other essential services.
Dallas County itself could lose $40 million in funding with a 1% undercount, state Rep. Carl Sherman told the Observer in August.
Texas was on track to gain three or four congressional seats because of its rapid population growth, said Valerie Martinez-Ebers, a University of North Texas political science professor who also directs its Latina/o and Mexican American studies program. However, some experts predict the undercount will cause the state to lose one or two.
Certain Republicans, such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, have parroted Trump’s call for a citizenship question, Martinez-Ebers said. Others would disagree, largely because they want more corporations to move here.
“You want good infrastructure and you want good schools and you want good quality of life,” she said. “And the Republicans who are less ideological and more interested in business and economic development, they’re going to know that it’s to benefit the state to count undocumented immigrants because it means more federal money.”
An undercount could also soil Democrats’ chances of turning the state blue anytime soon, Martinez-Ebers said. Whichever faction is in charge — Republicans in this case — isn’t likely to pass up the opportunity to redraw legislative districts to benefit their party.
Martinez-Ebers said she’d be disappointed if the Republicans decide to gerrymander because the state would be less competitive in future elections. Many have accused presidential candidates of ignoring non-swing states on the campaign trail.
Even though North Texas has witnessed “exponential growth,” Anchía is unsure whether conservative lawmakers would grant the region a Latino-opportunity district. Many minority communities would be less likely to elect a conservative.
“Republicans are going to try to draw districts that are going to advantage their party like they did last time around,” Anchía said.
Still, the Legislature likely won't receive the pertinent census data by the end of the 2021 session. In that case, it’d fall to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which comprises five top Texas Republicans, including Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Anchía said that would be the “most partisan of outcomes” because those politicians wouldn’t have to hold hearings.
Another option would be to kick it down to the Legislature’s next regularly called session in 2023, he said. Congressional redistricting can still be tackled in a special-called session over the summer or fall.
Texas doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to discriminatory redistricting, Anchía added. Even though two-thirds of the state’s growth came from Latinos alone, the Republican-majority Legislature attempted to reduce the number of Latino-opportunity districts after the 2010 census.
Three federal courts found the Texas Legislature had acted out of intentional discrimination, Anchía said.
But that was prior to the 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act, he said, and Trump’s administration pushed the Justice Department further to the right. In light of that history, Anchía is “very concerned” for this year’s redistricting process.
“People think, ‘Yeah well, discrimination against Latinos and African Americans, that’s … ancient history,’” Anchía said. “No. It is contemporary, and it’s digital. And we just lived it.”
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