The attorneys hired by Bexar County to study new census data and determine how to redraw its four precincts said they expect the process to be fairly straightforward.
Bexar County commissioners will see multiple proposed maps of their redistricted precincts on Tuesday. For the past few weeks, commissioners have had conversations with outside attorneys to get an understanding of the redistricting process and share their priorities. If 2022 follows the typical election timeline, primaries will be in March, which means the candidate filing window should open in November.
Before those filing windows are established, however, the new county precincts must be finalized, said Jose Garza, an attorney with the San Antonio-based Law Offices of Rolando L. Rios, the firm county commissioners approved for hiring this year to handle redistricting. The attorneys’ job is to draw new precinct boundaries using feedback from the commissioners and ensure that those boundaries follow legal guidelines. Commissioners then must approve the new precinct lines.
“It’s been moving pretty quick, just because of the timeframe that we’re under,” Garza said. “With the problems that the [U.S. Census Bureau] had in conducting the census because of the pandemic, the numbers were delayed substantially. … So we’ve hit the ground running. We think we can accomplish everything within the timeframe that we have. But it is going to be tight.”
With the time constraints, Garza expects the first and only public hearing to occur at the same Tuesday meeting at which commissioners see proposed redistricting maps for the first time. But rarely do public hearings result in substantial changes anyway, said redistricting expert Henry Flores, a professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University.
“I’ve seen cases where there’s been some egregious line-drawing and during the public comments, the guys get so much trouble from the people that they change their mind, do something else,” Flores said. “But those instances are rare.”
When redrawing political boundaries, commissioners must meet two requirements: The districts must be relatively equal in population size, and there cannot be any dilution of minority voting power.
The total population of Bexar County is just over 2 million, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, so each precinct should have roughly 502,000 people. But Precinct 3 experienced greater growth than the other three and now has 552,000 residents. That makes it about 10% over the ideal population size. Precinct 2, with 463,000 residents, is the smallest of the four and about 8% under the ideal size.
By law, the largest precinct must be no more than 10% greater than the smallest precinct, so rebalancing will need to occur.
Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, who represents Precinct 2, said he’s not sure how rebalancing the precincts will look but acknowledged that the commissioners would have to act quickly with the 2022 elections looming. He anticipates that lawyers will present commissioners with a few different possibilities.
“We could completely do something around the edges on all four precincts or it could just be [rebalancing] 3 and 2,” he said.
Commissioner Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) said she hopes to keep within her precinct the municipality of Helotes, which is currently split between her precinct and Rodriguez’s.
“From a Helotes standpoint, which is in the very north reach of the county, I would relish the opportunity to be able to represent the entire city of Helotes because of the amount of growth that’s occurred there,” she said.
The size and small number of precincts also make it difficult to run afoul of the Voting Rights Act prohibition of using redistricting to minimize the voting strength of racial or other minorities, Garza said. Still, lawyers must look at other historical data when evaluating minority voting power.
“You have to look at not just the demographics of [precincts], but election patterns as well,” Garza said. “And dealing with large populations, maintaining the balances that we’ve had historically sometimes presents a bit of a challenge. I don’t think we’re going to have a problem in Bexar County, though. I think we’re going to be able to check off the boxes on the legal requirements that we have to be careful with.”
Commissioners have also asked Garza and his colleagues to work on putting suburban cities within the same precinct. Leon Valley, like Helotes, is split between Precincts 2 and 3. But even though keeping “communities of interest” like municipalities and neighborhoods together is a priority when drawing districts, that may not always happen.
“That is a consideration for certainly the county or any jurisdiction that’s doing redistricting can look at, but it’s limited by how that would implicate total population disbursement and the impact on the minority voting strength,” Garza said.