Once a decade, the Texas legislature — or, more precisely, whatever party happens to be in power — has the chance to redraw the map of the state’s congressional districts. Redistricting, which is taking place all over the country, is a process that reconfigures electoral boundaries to make sure the changes in population are fairly apportioned to each district. Politicians will sometimes carve up states into oddly shaped districts designed to lock in or even expand their power in upcoming elections, a process known as gerrymandering.
In Texas, Republicans, as the majority party, have been in charge of redrawing the Texas map for the past 18 years. Reporting on redistricting can be an arcane business of looking into deals made by politicians behind closed doors.
But that’s not the approach taken by Nick Corasaniti, a politics correspondent for The New York Times, and Ella Koeze and Denise Lu, graphics editors for The Times.
“Redistricting reporting is less calling and getting the backroom deals, or having deep sources within the mapmaking world, than it is making sure we have really good data and graphics,” Mr. Corasaniti said.
The team used maps and data to show that at a time of fast-changing demographics, the map proposed by Republicans in Texas last month appears to bolster incumbents who have faced increasingly tough contests against a rising left in the state.
They recently discussed what they look for when parsing the redrawn maps, why what’s happening in Texas is significant for the rest of the country and the role of the courts in combating gerrymandering.
A number of states are redrawing their congressional districts this year. Why did you focus on Texas?
NICK CORASANITI We focused on states that were gaining or losing seats through the redistricting process, and states that had a history with gerrymandering or discrimination at the polls. Texas fell under every single one of those categories, and it was going to be one of the first to go through the process because it called a special session early. Texas has also faced challenges under the Voting Rights Act with regard to redisticting every decade since the law was passed
Why should we care about Texas’ congressional maps?
CORASANITI Texas is a massive state that tends to be a laboratory for national policy — we saw a pretty strict voting law come out of Texas back in July, and there’s a lot of attention on its new abortion bill. And what one state does affects every other — redistricting alone could tip control of the House, which would affect every person, no matter where you live.
By law, redistricting occurs in Texas once every 10 years. Is this year more significant than usual?
CORASANITI What’s critical this year is that some of the guardrails when it comes to redistricting have been eroded in the federal court. The Supreme Court in 2019 said federal courts aren’t the place to challenge partisan gerrymandering. And in 2013 there was a big landmark case that hollowed out one of the core provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: Preclearance. States with a history of discrimination — there were nine states, Texas was one of them — used to have to get any changes to voting laws or maps cleared by the Department of Justice, and they didn’t have to do that this year. And it’s also coming on the heels of a pretty protracted attack on access to voting, which makes it all the more important that we keep a very close eye on what’s going on.
From a graphics standpoint, what are you looking for?
ELLA KOEZE Sources in Texas who are familiar with the political geography of the state and where different populations live tell us which areas to look at. For instance, there’s a new district in Houston, so we wanted to zoom in on that. From there, we’re trying to make the map as clear as we can and include only the things that will illustrate that point, labeling only what we need to label. We want the graphics to make it easy for readers to see the exact mechanism at work that’s driving this huge process that’s so fundamental to our democracy.
What were you hoping to show with this article?
DENISE LU We wanted to visually show readers how certain districts in Texas are going to be very different from how they are now, and how a lot of these new districts would change in partisan lean. Redistricting is inherently such a map-based concept, so it was obvious we would be utilizing maps in how we show these changes, but we really wanted to emphasize just how the new districts would be parceled along partisan lines.
How long do legislators spend parsing how to draw these maps for maximum advantage?
CORASANITI It seems like, when you look at the calendar, they called a special session and did this in just a few days, right? But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The legislature and state parties look at every election over the entire decade, examining every change and swing, and seeing where populations are moving and voters are relocating, to be ready when redistricting arrives.
Is there any legal recourse for the opposing party?
CORASANITI The only real recourse — and this is going to be the second wave of redistricting reporting — is lawsuits. They were pretty common in the last cycle. Some were very successful, like in North Carolina, which was forced to redraw its maps twice between 2011 and 2020 after they were found to be discriminatory.