Every 10 years around the census, new districts are drawn. What’s at stake in Tyler?

The League of Women Voters requests an independent redistricting committee instead of Tyler City Council's consultant, a law firm that uses software and private conversations with council members to determine new districts.

For Natalie Wright Curley, redistricting co-chair for the League of Women Voters, redistricting is nothing short of fundamental to democracy. “Redistricting is one of the most important processes in our democracy, because it determines the power of your vote,” said Wright.

Natalie Wright Curley, redistricting co-chair for The League of Women Voters, is organizing for Tyler City Council to consider an independent redistricting committee compromised of two residents per district. “To me, there’s nothing more important than how we redistrict,” said Curley.📷 courtesy Natalie Wright Curley

The Tyler Loop sat down with Curley, who is informing and organizing residents around redistricting in Tyler with her co-chair, Mike Starr. The League of Women Voters is requesting that Tyler City Council empanel an independent citizens’ redistricting commission in hopes of promoting fair and effective representations with maximum opportunity for public scrutiny.

Curley said redistricting needs attention because of its lasting effects. “Redistricting happens once a decade, and that’s it.” 

The latest census data will be released September 30. Thereafter, the city must complete redistricting in 90 days.

Curley said the districts must be equally proportioned by population. “For cities, there’s a 10% leeway for the number of people per district, because sometimes it’s difficult to draw them exactly when you’re getting smaller and smaller areas.”

Tyler is divided into six districts. Ninety days after the 2021 Census data is released on September 30, new districts must be drawn. District 2 is “at risk of not being a Black district anymore,” said Natalie Wright Curley, redistricting co-chair for The League of Women Voters. Map by Neal Katz.

Curley said fair redistricting protects communities of interest and racial minority voters. Of Tyler’s six districts, Curley said District 2, a historically Black district, is at risk. “One of the [Black] districts is now drawn and at risk of not being a Black district anymore. It goes down Old Jacksonville Highway into Fresh and The Crossing. It’s becoming more white. 

Despite Tyler’s Hispanic population increasing to 21.6% in 2019, Curley noted there is no Hispanic representative on the City Council. “You can’t legally draw districts just to create certain populations, but you do need to draw districts that are representative,” Curley said. “The League is looking at [that] and trying to look at how the districts should be drawn to have at least one Hispanic represented.”

Curley said redistricting laws require that communities of interest should be kept together in specific districts so they have more voting power. A community of interest is self-defined. “It’s a specific area that they can actually draw on a map and say, ‘This church is important. This school is important. This park is part of our community. This is the general store we all go to, and all of our interests are pretty much aligned.’ They need one representative that will be a voice,” she said.

Curley said the six current council members and Tyler’s mayor, Don Warren, have hired a consultant to help draw new district lines, and this process is cause for concern. “The people who are currently in power draw the districts. They’ve hired a consultant who will use software to come up with new districts. 

“But if you were at the last city council meeting, that consultant wants to meet separately and privately with each city council member to discuss their needs. So the current city council and the mayor draw the districts,” said Curley.

The League of Women Voters proposes an independent committee made of two members from each district who can work with Tyler City Council to look at the numbers and the proposed districts to be redrawn as well as a fair and open process and for resident feedback to be considered in the process. 

Curley said independent redistricting committees have been adopted by some Texas cities, including El Paso, Austin and some cities in Hays County. “It’s not unheard of, but it’s not necessarily common, because there’s a lot of pushback generally from people in positions of power. But it has been done,” said Curley. 

At the city council meeting June 23, the city’s hired redistricting consultant gave a presentation, and The League and other interested groups attended and spoke for an independent committee. But a discussion about redistricting and a possible committee was not an action item that could be put to a vote. 

Curley said the consultant, a law firm, uses software to help draw new districts. “They have software they’ve developed to help take the numbers and reshuffle so that the districts are redrawn and lines are pushed to cover the differences of population. But how software is written and how it is used obviously can be manipulated depending on how you program it,” she said. 

A slide presented by the League of Women Voters details Texas’ last violations against equitable districting in 2011. Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Texas has come under scrutiny for unjust redistricting in every instance lines have been redrawn.

Texas has a history of drawing district lines that violate federal law. Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Texas has come under scrutiny for unjust redistricting. “Every time the maps have been drawn in Texas, the Justice Department found them to be drawn inequitably and racially discriminating,” said Curley.

At the meeting, Tyler City Council said they would work with the consultant to come up with proposals and those would be disclosed at a city meeting. 

The League is also working with Fairmaps and The Southern Justice Coalition. “Those groups have provided some mapping fellows that can help take the census data and also draw their own,” said Curley. 

Curley hopes Tyler City Council will consider maps drawn by these organizations as viable alternatives. “It’ll be interesting to compare that with what’s drawn by their own consultants and to see if they’re similar or not, and where they differ and how that would affect potential outcomes of representation,” said Curley.

To date, only one city council member, Shirley McKellar, has voiced support for a proposal for an independent redistricting committee.

Curley said her impression is that city council members prefer the consultant-led process, similar to the one used for redistricting in 2011. “Right now, what we’ve heard is, ‘We think the process is fine as it is. And we aren’t really interested in having a committee appointed.’”

“We’re pushing to try to get it as an agenda item and for a vote at the next city council meeting,” said Curley. Tyler City Council’s next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, August 4. 

“If that doesn’t happen, The League plans to attend as many of those meetings as possible to voice consideration of other maps or specific districts we’re concerned about,” said Curley.

She said communities of interest play a vital role, too. “It’s really up to communities of interest to define themselves and to provide the support that they are a community.” 

Curley said The League wants to help locate and empower communities of interest. “We want to make sure they are maintained within one district. The mapping fellow is going to help us enter the fight and look at how we’re going to draw maps to contain those communities,” she said.

If a resident or group wanted to contest districts after they are drawn, the process would be long.

“An individual or group of people would have to bring it to court against the state legislature after the maps are drawn. They would have to show there was racial discrimination and disparity in the way the maps were drawn. That process obviously takes a long time. And in the meantime, the maps are drawn and voting is moving forward,” said Curley.

Curley said redistricting is fundamental. “It seems so esoteric, but it’s the fundamental guide of how everything is done over the next 10 years. And to me, there’s nothing more important than how we redistrict. If districts aren’t drawn fairly, how will anyone ever have a chance of winning an election that changes the status quo?”

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.