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Jeff Woo/DRC

A close-up view of redistricting in a Denton neighborhood

Dione Harbour has to be careful when she opens the front door to her east Denton home. Her small dog Max Jr. has been known to duck past her legs, bolt across Mockingbird Lane and end up in a neighbor's yard.

What Harbour (and certainly Max Jr.) didn't know is when the dog crosses Mockingbird, he also crosses a boundary line that splits the neighborhood into different state Senate and City Council voting districts.

"That's bizarre," Harbour said when she found out  her neighbors across the street have a different state senator and City Council member than she does.

Denton resident Dione Harbour walks her dogs Max Jr. (right) and Trevor along Mockingbird Lane on Wednesday. Harbour said she didn't know the street serves as a dividing line between state Senate and City Council voting districts.Caitlyn Jones/DRC
Denton resident Dione Harbour walks her dogs Max Jr. (right) and Trevor along Mockingbird Lane on Wednesday. Harbour said she didn't know the street serves as a dividing line between state Senate and City Council voting districts.
Caitlyn Jones/DRC

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, represents Harbour and her neighbors on the east side of Mockingbird Lane in District 12. Keely Briggs represents them in District 2 on the City Council. 

Across the street, state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, represents the neighbors on the west side of Mockingbird in District 30. Kevin Roden represents them in Denton's District 1. 

Mockingbird Lane is a symbol of an arcane political science called reapportionment, or redistricting. Every 10 years, politicians in Austin convene to draw new boundaries for congressional districts, state Senate and state House districts. Put a microscope on Mockingbird, and you can learn a lot more about why we vote at a certain location and for certain candidates. 

Why a line here?  

Mockingbird, a two-lane street, takes a wobbly route as it wends from Mingo Road to East McKinney Street. On either side of Mockingbird, the neighborhood's oldest homes line the other "bird" streets — Cardinal Drive, Bluebird Circle and Kingfisher, Oriole, Hummingbird, Bob-O-Link and Meadowlark lanes. They boast large lots, big trees and colorful landscapes with shrubs and flowers and gazing balls. New homes have popped up, too, while a few old pastures remain undeveloped, at least for now. 

Known as the Singing Oaks-Bird Streets neighborhood, the 2.2-square-mile area is designated as Tract 206.02 in the 2010 U.S. Census. It's home to almost 9,000 people. It also happens to house Denton's highest concentration of Latino and Hispanic families.

Bryce Matthiesen moved this spring from Lewisville to a new home on Water Oak Street on the west side of Mockingbird Lane. He attends the University of North Texas. The new basketball courts at Milam Park offer a fun workout four blocks from his house. He didn't know Mockingbird Lane sits like a political wall between neighbors, both at the city and state level.

"That's crazy," Matthiesen said.

Nelva Scott has lived on the east side of Mockingbird since 1968. She said the area is quiet and she has no plans to move. 

"Most neighbors have been here a long time and there's not much trouble," Scott said. 

A political dividing line can make it more difficult for a neighborhood to wield a unified front if residents have an issue with city government or state government. For example, crews have been rebuilding failed streets all over the city for more than five years. Scott said she and her neighbors wonder when city crews will ever rebuild Mockingbird, which is in poor condition.

"I'm not a complainer," Scott said. "I'm the type that doesn't like to start friction."

Politically significant dividing lines such as Mockingbird Lane are common.

"A split along streets like this can be found in neighborhoods all over the country, not just Texas,” said Luis Roberto Vera Jr., the national general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, a national civil rights organization that files redistricting lawsuits when district lines appear to divide, or dilute, minority voting strength.

For this reason, Mockingbird Lane and other boundaries like it can become lightning rods during political district-drawing battles that erupt every 10 years. When politicians draw lines that dilute people’s political power in some areas and concentrate it in others, those boundaries become problematic, Vera said.  

“We’ve created a monster of gerrymander,” Vera said, referring to nationwide redistricting issues.

Counting people

The population of Texas reached a significant milestone in 2011: the majority of the state's population no longer was white.  It was 45 percent white, 37 percent Latino, 12 percent black, 3 percent Asian and 3 percent "other."  

Denton's population also shifted in 2011, but not as much as the state as a whole: 62 percent white, 22 percent Latino, 10 percent black, 4 percent Asian and 2 percent "other."  

The Singing Oaks-Bird Streets neighborhood is densely populated, with apartments and duplexes alongside single-family homes. As a census tract, it is one of the city's most populous and includes a higher concentration of Hispanics than any other tract in Denton. About 41 percent, or about 3,600 of the nearly 9,000 people living there, identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino in 2010. 

Lee Elementary School serves the neighborhood on both sides of Mockingbird.  The school has one of the higher concentrations of Hispanic and Latino students in the Denton school district. Nearly half of Lee Elementary students are English-language learners, and three-fourths are considered economically disadvantaged. The median home value in the Singing Oaks-Bird Streets neighborhood sits at about $161,000, about $35,000 less than Denton's median home value. 

If Mockingbird Lane did not divide the neighborhood for political districts, the concentration of minorities would likely change in Senate District 12 (Nelson) and Senate District 30 (Estes).

In other words, if the whole neighborhood went to District 30, the percentage of Hispanics represented by  Estes could increase from the current 15.3 percent to 15.5 percent. Or, if the whole neighborhood went to District 12 instead, the percentage of Hispanics represented by Nelson could increase from the current 19.8 percent to 20 percent.  

It’s not immediately clear how the concentration would change for City Council districts. The city does not publish population data with district boundary maps on its website. 

Redistricting fights

Every 10 years, officials with the U.S. Census count the population. Then, political boundaries get redrawn so each representative district has about the same number of people in it, whether federal, state or local. 

Texas has a history of trouble after drawing those boundaries. Maps for congressional districts and state legislative districts have been challenged in court and by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has authority under the federal Voting Rights Act to make sure each person's vote counts. 

A long, complicated fight over Texas House and U.S. congressional districts ended recently when a federal appeals court declared three Texas congressional districts illegal. The court said officials drew political lines to either take in too many minorities or take in too few.

A similar fight over Texas Senate districts ended several years ago. That battle focused primarily on the Fort Worth-area seat previously held by state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound Courtesy photo
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound 
Courtesy photo

The boundaries of Nelson's district were part of that battle. District 12 roughly follows U.S. Highway 380 through Denton County and includes the zig-zag along Mockingbird Lane. The boundaries of District 12 have been upheld in court as constitutional, not just when the Davis case settled, but in the previous redistricting cycle, too.  

"My philosophy with redistricting is to keep communities of interest together to the extent possible.  Especially in populated areas, that is not always possible,” Nelson said in an email to the Denton Record-Chronicle.

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita FallsCourtesy photo
State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls
Courtesy photo

Estes did not return multiple requests for comment sent by email and phone.

By itself, the boundary on Mockingbird Lane in Denton might not be of a concern, said Ernest Herrera, an attorney with MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.

“But it could be one piece of evidence in a larger case [brought under the Voting Rights Act],” Herrera said.

A local line, too

Local political boundaries also get redrawn after the census. When Denton became a city, voters cast ballots for all council seats.  These were called at-large elections. But the majority of white voters always seemed to hold sway over Hispanic and black minorities when it came time to elect council members.

After Texas became subject to the Voting Rights Act, Denton’s at-large council seats came under scrutiny. To avoid trouble with federal law, the city drew council districts to improve representation of minorities on the City Council. Since then, black candidates from central and Southeast Denton frequently won a council seat in District 1. 

Mockingbird Lane divides the Singing Oaks-Bird Streets neighborhood in east Denton for both state Senate and City Council districts. Jeff Woo/DRC
Mockingbird Lane divides the Singing Oaks-Bird Streets neighborhood in east Denton for both state Senate and City Council districts. 
Jeff Woo/DRC

Council member Dalton Gregory, who represented District 2 during the last City Council redistricting, said the city hired a political consultant to help with the job. The City Council worked with the consultant to draw district boundaries to comply with the Voting Rights Act and keep neighborhoods together. 

But the people in the Singing Oaks-Bird Streets neighborhood were split up along Mockingbird Lane. To the west, they are with other central and Southeast Denton residents of District 1. To the east, they are with the other residents of District 2, which covers an expansive territory reaching to the city's northern and eastern boundaries. 

No seat at the table

Political boundary lines need to be drawn someplace, and the results rarely make everyone happy, said Michael Li, an expert on Texas redistricting. He is now an attorney with the Democracy Program at Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. 

Texas brings plenty of gamesmanship to its drawing of political boundaries, Li said. But the process the Texas Legislature follows isn't open or fair. 

"The maps get drawn behind closed doors," Li said. "Even if people felt they should keep their neighborhood together, there isn't an ability to argue for that." 

The last time the Denton City Council drew its boundaries, in 2011, the meetings were public. No neighborhood representatives testified. 

Council members made sure they didn't draw boundaries that would put two sitting council members in the same district, which would force them to run against each other in the next election.

If a district becomes too Democratic or too Republican, that can be tough on voters, too, Li said. 

The political climate becomes extreme and leads to candidates vying to outdo each other in party primaries. 

"And it [the extremism] doesn't self-correct in the general election," Li said.  "Then, the primary is the only election that matters." 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.

Editor's note: This report was developed after reviewing records from the U.S. Census, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Texas Legislature, the Texas Education Administration, the Denton Central Appraisal District, the city of Denton and conversations with elected officials and Texas redistricting experts.