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August 1st, 2022:

Texas is sooooooooo gerrymandered…

How gerrymandered are we? By this measure, we’re literally as gerrymandered as we could possibly be.

But just how biased have modern-day maps become in the state of Texas? The map that was approved last October is so highly biased, it is quite literally off the charts, according to the SMU findings.

The open-source software that the SMU researchers use helps them generate millions of maps that follow state guidelines for drawing districts.

The software allowed the researchers to answer a simple question: “If you didn’t try to design [maps] to maximize Democratic seats or Republican seats, if you just pick them randomly to satisfy the law — what would you get?” said Andrea Barreiro, associate professor of mathematics at SMU.

Using this large set of randomly generated maps, the group established a baseline for what a typical map that follows state guidelines looks like. With this baseline, the researchers were then able to measure how far from the baseline a proposed map was — and, therefore, how biased it was.

“If you have something that’s way outside of [the baseline], then there must have been some design goal that pushed it away from all these randomly generated maps, and that’s what we would call a biased map,” said Scott Norris, SMU associate professor of mathematics.

As soon as Texas’ first proposed congressional maps were made available on the Capitol Data Portal in late September, the SMU team got to work analyzing how the maps fared.

As different maps were proposed, the team generated over a million maps to create an unbiased baseline, offering key measures that are commonly used by political scientists to assess gerrymandering.

They completed this analysis for 59 proposed congressional maps. (The SMU team also shared their analysis for proposed Texas House, Senate and city council maps.)

Of the 1.5 million maps that the team generated and analyzed to compare with the final proposed Texas congressional district map, not a single baseline map showed levels of bias as high.

The proposed map was more biased than every single map their software had generated, the SMU researchers showed.

With their findings in hand, the SMU team reached out to all members of the Texas subcommittees involved in redistricting, as well as the researchers’ own local legislators.

They sent emails and posted to the comment portals provided by the legislature. Several of them testified at an open community hearing, explaining how this software works and advocating for its use to create less biased maps.

But they only heard back from a few offices. “The only people that we have actually spoken to are Democrats. … As you might expect, we haven’t had any interest from Republican members of the committees and, you know, that makes sense from their perspective,” said Norris.

[…]

The SMU group’s software revealed that the approved Texas map reduced the competitiveness of almost 50% of congressional districts in the state. This means that Republicans can win 50% of the state’s congressional seats, with only 42.2% of the state’s votes, the researchers showed.

In addition to dampening the need for officials to earn votes, gerrymandering can also leave large numbers of voters in a district with a representative who is out of touch with their community, said SMU researchers.

“When we testified to the House about this, I was struck [by] how many rural Republican voters were basically pleading with legislators not to break up their districts,” said Matthew Lockard, SMU associate professor of philosophy.

Farmers worried that their lives are so different from those of the city voters they might be in a district with that it just didn’t make sense.

You can see all the data here. I will confess, I don’t really understand the numbers they have in the tables there, but you don’t need a deep understanding of their methods to grok that the Republican-drawn ones were more gerrymandered than all 1.5 million randomly-drawn legal maps done by the team. We saw last decade that in a rapidly growing and diversifying state like Texas big changes can happen in a short time. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen again, just that the future isn’t set in stone. But that’s not for lack of trying on the Republicans’ part.

San Antonio will make its statement for abortion rights

More symbolic than anything, but it still has meaning.

Five San Antonio City Council members and the mayor stood in support of a largely symbolic measure Wednesday that would attempt to “decriminalize” abortion locally.

Council is expected to approve a resolution during a special meeting called for Tuesday that would essentially condemn Texas’ abortion ban and recommend that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to the ban.

“Women and individuals who are seeking access to abortion need to know that their elected officials are standing by them and will not allow city resources to be used to collect any data to potentially criminalize or prosecute them,” Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who drafted the resolution and held the press conference outside City Hall, told the San Antonio Report after the event.

The resolution cannot prevent local enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, Castillo acknowledged, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to the city’s charter.

“But it’s a step in the right direction and it’s a step to build upon and implement additional policy,” she said.

Castillo didn’t elaborate on what additional policies council might consider, but said she was looking forward to hearing ideas from the community and her colleagues.

Castillo and Mayor Ron Nirenberg were joined by council members Mario Bravo (D1), Phyllis Viagran (D3), Melissa Cabello-Havrda (D6) and John Courage (D9); together, the six represent a majority of council.

The resolution is similar to the GRACE Act that the Austin City Council approved this week. That, too, was a symbolic policy recommendation, as Austin’s charter has similar rules around the direction of law enforcement.

See here for some background on Austin’s actions, about which you know what I think. I’m curious at this point to see how many other Texas cities follow in these footsteps. If it’s still relevant next year, – if there hasn’t been a federal law passed to reinstate abortion rights, and if the Lege hasn’t passed some crazy law to shut this down, and if this cause hasn’t been taken up yet here – I’ll be asking every candidate for Mayor and City Council that I interview what they think about doing the same thing in Houston. Texas Public Radio and the Current have more.

More on the planning for the University BRT line

Yes, Metro has to make some predictions about where transit will be needed. Building a line that goes through some of the densest parts of town probably helps with that.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials told voters in 2019 “we have a plan for traffic,” and more than two-thirds of those who cast ballots bought in.

Now that the plan is coming into focus, agency officials will need more than just good ideas to make the lines they have drawn on a map a reality.

The challenge for Metro is picking routes and lines for the future when travel patterns constantly change and economic factors can upend commutes. Even with $7.5 billion in local and federal funding plotted, Metro can only do one or two major projects at a time. Picking the first steps in some ways influences whether the agency can avoid lingering concerns about transit leaders’ ability to deliver big projects.

Officials admit much of their plan is an educated guess, but still a guess about how Houstonians will want to get around in the years to come.

“It is not possible for us to be future-proof, but it is possible to be future-ready,” Metro board chair Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

[…]

The long-range plan for transit in Houston, estimated to cost $7.5 billion, spans the entire region, including 75 miles of bus rapid transit, two-way HOV or HOT lanes for park and ride buses along all major freeways and plans for extending light rail to Hobby Airport.

While things such as shelters at hundreds of Metro’s 8,900 bus stops and improved sidewalks along major routes already are in progress, the first big-ticket project on Metro’s list is the University Line. It is among the longest bus rapid transit lines planned in the nation, connecting a dozen of the region’s major transit hubs and roughly 20 neighborhoods, using large buses that stop at stations and act more like light rail than conventional bus service.

The buses use their own lanes along major streets, in some cases taking lanes now open to car and truck drivers, to avoid traffic and offer access to about 40 stops along the 25.3 mile route. It is about one-third of the dedicated lanes Metro wants to build, and along with a planned BRT line along Interstate 10 forms the two east-west transit backbones that join the light rail system downtown and the Silver Line BRT through Uptown.

Transit advocates have called the line critical to linking Houston neighborhoods clamoring for better, faster transit to the job centers and educational opportunities abounding in the region.

“If we can get 5 to 10 percent of the region using transit, that is going to make life better for the 90-95 percent,” Ramabhadran said.

See here for some background, and look for a detailed description of the route embedded in the story. This BRT route will connect with all of the existing light rail lines as well as the Uptown BRT line, and will later connect with the Energy Corridor BRT line that’s also on the drawing board (see page 2). I will never get over the fact that we could right now already have an operational Universities light rail line, but there’s nothing to be done about that. I do see the same old critics making their same old tired arguments in this story, and all I can say is that I hope they have a lot less influence this time around. We’re still a long way out from a ribbon-cutting, and I know I’ll be worried about things that can go wrong until we get to that. In the meantime, learn what you can about this and show your support. We’re going to need all the good transit options we can get.