County Judge KP George last week brought Fort Bend County into the ongoing fight in the Texas Legislature over redistricting, when he penned a letter slamming the process and the proposed division of the county into three different districts.
“Our residents deserve to choose their politicians, not the other way around,” George said. “I ask you today to make good on that principle by ensuring that a congressional district, in its entirety, is located within the already-existing borders of Fort Bend County.”
The Texas Legislature is gathered in Austin discussing new congressional maps as part of an effort known as redistricting. Redistricting takes place every 10 years in Texas to apportion federal and state legislative districts based on population.
Under the current maps, most of Fort Bend County falls into the 22nd U.S. Congressional District, occupied by U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls, a Republican. Some of the county is in the 9th U.S. Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Democrat.
But proposed maps would further divide the county, taking the most reliably democratic areas out of the 22nd Congressional District and placing them into the 7th Congressional District – a Houston-area district represented by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Democrat, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston.
“Now 7 is a very democratic district,” he said. “It used to be a swing district to some degree, just like Fort Bend County. But the Republicans are trading off an uncertain future in 7 and 22 for a more certain future in 22.”
Redistricting in Texas has long been subject of severe political controversy and lawsuits because, unlike some states, the process here is partisan.
“What bothers me is that I don’t have a voice,” said Lydia Ozuna, a Fort Bend County resident who in 2017 helped launch the nonpartisan Texans Against Gerrymandering nonprofit organization. “My vote doesn’t count as much as someone else’s vote. I can cast my vote, but if the map is gerrymandered to keep a particular party in power, that vote is meaningless unless I align with that party.”
Fort Bend County has emerged in recent years as a center of demographic changes across the state that could have repercussions on politics for years to come, Rottinghaus said.
“What’s happening now is that the legislature sees it cannot game the system by drawing lines to ensure Republicans will be strong in new areas in the future,” he said. “So, they’re instead focusing on maintaining their current strength.”
Between 2015 and 2020, the population in Fort Bend County increased from about 715,260 to 839,706 residents, according to one analysis by HireAHelper. That makes it the second fastest-growing county in the United States.
But it’s the specifics of that population growth that make Fort Bend County so central to ongoing redistricting conversations, Rottinghaus said.
“Fort Bend County is in a unique position because the growth is so unpredictable, with respect to race and age,” he said. “It’s hard for mapmakers to gauge what the future holds. If Fort Bend is a crystal ball, it’s pretty opaque.”
Texas Republicans for years have gerrymandered districts to blunt changing voting demographics across the state, Rottinghaus said. But the quick growth of diverse counties like Fort Bend have made it harder to do so within legal boundaries, he said.
“Republicans are rapidly reaching the point where they’ll be incapable of drawing lines that won’t reflect the massive growth of the state’s racial and ethnic growth,” Rottinghaus said. “If they haven’t already.”
George in his letter last week called on state leaders to add a district specifically in Fort Bend County, arguing the county’s population of about 822,700 was near the ideal population for a congressional district of about 766,900 people.
“Political boundaries have tremendous consequences on the livelihood and trajectory of a community,” George said. “At this momentous time in the history of Fort Bend County, it is imperative that our residents are not disenfranchised by diluting our diverse community’s votes with that of other, much more rural communities around us.”
It might not be long before it’s impossible for congressional districts to reflect Texas’ increased diversity, Rottinghaus said. But it’s unlikely, as long as redistricting remains partisan, that a single congressional district will ever fall entirely in Fort Bend County, he said.
“Every public official wants to see lines draw in a way that’s perfect for them,” he said.