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The Census and redisticting

Mustafa Tameez has an op-ed in today’s Chron about the importance of the Census from a political perspective.

Remember redistricting? Redistricting is the process by which the boundaries of elective districts are periodically redrawn to maintain equal representation on the basis of population. The Texas Legislature is set to begin drawing lines for redistricting upon publication of the 2010 census.

That’s right. The Texas congressional districts are about to be redrawn again. And the lines will be drawn depending on how you fill out the census form.

Texas’ population grew more than any other state’s between 2008 and 2009. Because of estimated growth since the last census in 2000, Texas could gain up to four seats in Congress and receive billions of dollars more in federal aid if the population growth is accurately represented in the census. More representation means Texas gets a louder voice in Washington.

And locally, two new seats will be added to the Houston City Council, meaning a greater say at City Hall for emerging neighborhoods. But the new districts can be drawn fairly only if we have an accurate count.

Here’s a fun fact for you: Prison inmates are considered part of the population of the county where they are incarcerated. Never mind where their actual homes and families are, if they’re locked up in Big House County, they’re considered residents of Big House County. No wonder small towns and rural areas have fallen over themselves to lure prison builders in years past.

From Houston’s perspective, it’s harder to say what’s more at stake with the Census – the new Congressional district that will likely be drawn somewhere out in southwest Harris County, or the new City Council districts. With either one, of course, the better and more accurate the count, the more likely that the lines that are ultimately drawn will truly reflect the population there. Let’s not overlook legislative redistricting, either; even a cursory glance at the population trends will show you that some State Rep districts have a lot more people in them than some others, with the ones out west being in the former group. Unlike those other bodies, however, the Harris County contingent in Austin will remain the same at 25 seats, so when those lines are redrawn, it will be to shuffle them around rather than to fit in more. That’s a much more contentious prospect, one that can lead to legislators being paired up or drawn out. Again, the best thing to do is ensure that you get counted. Who you get to vote for in 2011 and beyond depends on it.

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5 Comments

  1. Peter Wagner says:

    I’m not sure that most rural towns were thinking of prison-based gerrymandering when they lured prisons to their towns. The promise of jobs (which often don’t go to locals, oops) is often the bigger incentive to take land off the tax rolls and make your town’s name synonymous with a prison.

    That said, once a community gets a prison and those census counts start to pad legislative districts, you start to see the political priorities change. The Census might not be why we have so many prison cells, but it does have an impact on why our legislatures are so reluctant to ask what we are getting for our huge investment in prisons.

    I co-wrote a report in 2004 about prison-basd gerrymandering in Texas. http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/texas/ Fun fact: The Texas election law says prison is not a residence, but nobody thought to look at whether the U.S. Census counts were compatible with state law. Back before the prison boom, this probably didn’t matter, but now….

  2. Kenneth Fair says:

    When I was growing up in Huntsville, my father served for a period of on the city’s public library board. Under state law, the public library had to make certain resources available to the public (and expend the funds to do so) if the city population was over 25,000. As that time the city’s population was under 25,000, but was over 25,000 if the prisoners were included. The library eventually got a waiver to avoid having to expend the funds by pointing out that the prisoners were obviously not using the library. But on the other hand, counting prisoners as part of the city population was necessary for other purposes, such as determining water, electric, and sewer needs.

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