The following is a brief discussion of basic legal requirements relating to legislative redistricting.
The federal constitution calls for reapportionment of congressional seats according to population from a decennial census (Section 2, Article I). Reapportionment is the allocation of a set number of districts among established units of government. The 435 congressional seats are reapportioned among the 50 states after each decennial census according to the method of equal proportions. The boundaries of the individual congressional districts within each state are then redrawn by the state legislature in accordance with state and federal law.
Redistricting is the revision or replacement of existing electoral districts, resulting in new districts with different geographical boundaries. The basic purpose of decennial redistricting is to equalize population among electoral districts after publication of the United States decennial census indicates population has increased or decreased over the last decade.
The Texas Constitution requires the legislature to redistrict Texas house and senate seats during its first regular session following publication of each United States decennial census (Section 28, Article III). After each census, State Board of Education seats also must be redistricted to bring them into compliance with the one‐person, one‐vote requirement.
Two primary requirements govern redistricting. First, representative districts of a given type (senate, house, congressional, and the State Board of Education (SBOE) as well as local government single-member districts) must have equal or nearly equal populations. Second, districts must be drawn in a manner that neither has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or language group. These requirements are based in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the Equal Protection Clause), the Fifteenth Amendment (prohibiting voting discrimination based on race), the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, and, for congressional districts, Section 2, Article I, of the U.S. Constitution.
"The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote."
Exactly how equal must the populations of districts be? A Texas case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s (White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755 (1973)) set the basic standard for the maximum acceptable population deviation for state legislative districts: the combined deviation of the most populous district and the least populous district from the ideal district population may not exceed 10 percent, and all the other district populations must fall within that narrow range. "Ideal district population" is the population a district would have if all districts in a plan have equal populations, and it is determined by dividing the total state population by the number of districts in the plan. The courts have allowed limited exceptions to the 10 percent deviation limitation if based on consistent application of rational state policy such as the preservation of whole counties. In some cases, even plans with districts within the 10 percent limitation have been held invalid if the population deviations show a pattern of discrimination. The same standard applies to districts for the SBOE. A stricter one‐person, one‐vote standard applies to congressional redistricting.
Traditionally, states have equalized total census populations to comply with the one‐person, one‐vote requirement. The federal courts have left open the question of whether a state may equalize eligible voter populations among districts to satisfy that requirement.
The application of the Voting Rights Act and federal constitutional prohibitions against redistricting that has the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of race, color, or language group has been developed primarily through case law and has been the subject of extensive litigation. In drawing new districts, the legislature must carefully consider how those districts affect the ability of racial, ethnic, and language group voters to elect candidates of their choice.
While the principal federal constitutional and statutory provisions governing redistricting are the same for all redistricting plans, the specific provisions of the Texas Constitution relating to Texas house and senate districts, and certain provisions of the federal constitution governing congressional districts, result in somewhat different requirements for different types of districts. The following sections briefly describe redistricting requirements specific to each type of district for which the Texas Legislature is primarily responsible.
Section 25, Article III, Texas Constitution, requires the Texas Senate to be elected from single‐member districts and each senate district to be composed of contiguous territory.
Section 28, Article III, Texas Constitution, requires the legislature to redistrict state senate districts during the first regular session following publication of the decennial census. If the legislature fails to do so, the redistricting task falls temporarily to the Legislative Redistricting Board.
Often referred to as the "county line rule," Section 26, Article III, Texas Constitution, as modified by the federal courts to comply with the one-person, one-vote standard mandated by the Fourteenth Amendment, requires that house districts be apportioned among the counties according to the most recent federal decennial census population, subject to the following:
a county with sufficient population for exactly one district must be formed into a single district;
a county with a population smaller than the population needed for a whole district must be kept whole and combined with one or more contiguous counties to form a district;
a county that has sufficient population for two or more whole districts must be divided into that number of districts, with no district extending into another county; and
each county with a population sufficient for one or more whole districts plus a fraction of another district must be divided into that many whole districts, with the excess population added to one or more contiguous counties to form an additional district.
In practice, it is sometimes impossible to draw a statewide plan that completely satisfies these rules while maintaining districts with equal populations. The Texas courts have allowed a house plan to violate the county line rule to the limited extent necessary to draw a plan that complies with the federal one‐person, one‐vote requirement. For example, a county with less than the population needed for a single house district may be split between districts when no other option is available to create equally populated house districts.
Section 28, Article III, Texas Constitution, requires the legislature to redistrict state house districts during the first regular session following publication of the decennial census. If the legislature fails to do so, the redistricting task falls temporarily to the Legislative Redistricting Board.
The number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives apportioned to each state is determined after each decennial census by a mathematical formula set by federal law. Unless a state's constitution provides otherwise, each legislature has the authority to draw its state's congressional district boundaries. No Texas constitutional or statutory provisions address congressional redistricting. As a practical matter, the legislature must draw districts for the congressional seats apportioned to Texas before the candidates' filing period for the first general election following the decennial census. Unlike legislative redistricting, congressional redistricting does not come within the authority of the Legislative Redistricting Board if the legislature fails to enact a valid plan during the regular session that is meeting when the decennial census is published. The issue may be taken up in a subsequent special session of the legislature or, if the legislature fails to enact a congressional plan or if the governor does not call a special session, the districts may ultimately be drawn by a state or federal district court.
Federal law allows substantially less population deviation for congressional districts than for legislative districts, requiring congressional districts to be as equal in population as practicable. In congressional districts, each deviation from the ideal district size must be justified on the basis of a rational state policy or be found to be unavoidable despite a good faith effort to draw districts with equal population (Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725 (1983)). As a result, congressional districts are usually drawn to be almost exactly the same in population.
Section 7.101, Education Code, establishes the composition of the State Board of Education (SBOE). The board currently consists of 15 members elected from districts.
No state statute requires redistricting of the SBOE districts at a particular time. The statutes governing the board provide for the election of a new board with staggered four-year terms after any decennial reapportionment of the districts. See Section 7.104, Education Code. As a practical matter, the legislature must redistrict the SBOE districts after the decennial census to bring the districts into compliance with the one‐person, one‐vote requirement.
Texas law states that the purpose of reapportionment of the judicial districts for the district courts is to promote "prompt and efficient" administration of government by equalizing the "judicial burdens" of the district courts (Section 24.941, Government Code). This differs from the purpose of redistricting representative districts, which is to equalize the populations of the districts. Caseloads and a number of other variables, some of which are difficult to quantify, may be factored into the measurement of "judicial burden." Judicial districts are not covered by the one‐person, one‐vote requirement and may have whatever populations the legislature considers appropriate.
Judicial districts are not covered by the one‐person, one‐vote requirement and may have whatever populations the legislature considers appropriate.
The Texas Legislature may revise the judicial districts at any regular or special session. The Texas Constitution requires the Judicial Districts Board (JDB) to make a statewide reapportionment of judicial districts if the legislature does not do so by June of the third year following the federal decennial census. If the JDB fails to do so by August of that third year, the responsibility falls to the Legislative Redistricting Board.
The boundaries of the state's courts of appeals districts are determined solely by the legislature and are not required to be redrawn at any particular time.