Slicing the Map

part 1 2 3 4

Changing Districts with a Click of a Mouse

Scott Simms is a policy analyst for the Texas House speaker, Republican Tom Craddick. Simms is the man who wielded the scalpel with the skill of a cosmetic surgeon in the 2003 gerrymander. He carved up the state's electoral lines using highly sophisticated, yet inexpensive, computer software. In fact, technology has transformed the science of redistricting. Where once the process was undertaken by people pouring over thousands of maps, now entire districts are changed at the click of a mouse.

"I can select this assignment unit, [mouse clicks twice] and I know that there are 6,300 people living in that district. And then it breaks it down by the voting ages."

He can also tell how they voted, and the turnout.

"There are 2,700 of those 6,300 people actually registered; only 900 of them voted. A very low percentage, in 2002. Who knows what that reason was, but that's a Democrat precinct. There's no doubt about it."

Armed with such precise information, even down to a block-by-block level, Scott Simms' job was to draw a map, which would tilt the advantage firmly in the Republican's favor.

"My boss is a partisan," says Simms. "He's an elected Republican."

Simms' boss, Speaker Craddick, was open about his desires. He wanted a map that reflected what he saw as the Republican nature of Texas.

"I think that's a fair way to say it," says Simms, "because Texas is a Republican state and the districts had been drawn in the past, that protected a long-standing majority, even though they no longer were. So, when Martin Frost acts like he's pure as the driven snow in this, he's whistling past the graveyard."

Tamara Bell works for Democrat Jim Dunnam. She's also a long time Austin resident. Until the latest map, her city was a single congressional district. Now it's been divided into three. And each new, exotically-shaped slice stretches for hundreds of miles across Texas. She's come to see a spot that the locals have been talking about.

We're standing near an intersection in downtown Austin. We're facing a cafeteria on one side, a residential street to our left, a parking lot straight ahead of us, and to our right, a very busy highway. And we're standing on a strip of grass that may be one of the more politically significant strips of grass in the state of Texas.

"This patch right here," says Bell, "is where three congressional districts in Texas meet: Congressional District 25, 10 and 21. Now that's significant, because a year ago, this whole area was district 10. We had one congressman that we knew, who knew us. We could call his office, and he understood the concerns of Austin. And right now, we are now split between three congressmen. District 10 goes from this point east through some sparse areas between here and Houston, and it will stop just outside of Houston. Then we have the congressional district that I'm part of, 21, go from this point and go west to the Hill Country, which is very pretty, but doesn't have really anything in common with what my life's all about. And then we would loop back around to pick up San Antonio."

That's about a three hour drive.

"Oh, at least," says Bell. "From District 25, from where we stand, you would go south and you'd just keep on going until you saw a big sign that said, 'You are now entering Mexico.'"

That's over 300 miles.

"It's called the 'Bacon Strip,'" Bell explains, "because it looks like a piece of bacon, especially when it's been cooked up, and it just goes very long and very narrow."

Go to part 3

©2018 American Public Media