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Texas Redistricting Fight Shows Why Voting Rights Act Still Needed | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Texas Redistricting Fight Shows Why Voting Rights Act Still Needed


The Senate Redistricting committee listens to public speakers during a hearing, Thursday, May 30, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The last time Texas redrew its political maps in the middle of the decade, Texas Democrats fled to Oklahoma to protest Tom DeLay’s unprecedented power grab in 2003.  

Now Texas Republicans are at it again, with Governor Rick Perry calling a special session of the legislature to certify redistricting maps that were deemed intentionally discriminatory by a federal court in Washington and modified, with modest improvements, by a district court in San Antonio last year. Republicans want to quickly ratify the interim maps drawn for 2012 by the court in San Antonio before the court has a chance to improve them for 2014 and future elections. “Republicans figured out that if the courts rule on these maps, they’re going to make them better for Latinos and African-Americans,” says Matt Angle, director of the Texas Democratic Trust.

The maps originally passed by the Texas legislature in 2011 personified how Republicans were responding to demographic change by trying to limit the power of an increasingly diverse electorate. Here’s the backstory, which I reported last year:

One of four majority-minority states, Texas grew by 4.3 million people between 2000 and 2010, two-thirds of them Hispanics and 11 percent black. As a result, the state gained four Congressional seats this cycle. Yet the number of seats to which minority voters could elect a candidate declined, from eleven to ten. As a result, Republicans will pick up three of the four new seats. “The Texas plan is by far the most extreme example of racial gerrymandering among all the redistricting proposals passed by lawmakers so far this year,” says Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters.

As in the rest of the South, the new lines were drawn by white Republicans with no minority input. As the maps were drafted, Eric Opiela, counsel to the state’s Congressional Republicans, referred to key sections of the Voting Rights Act as “hocus-pocus.” Last year the Justice Department found that the state’s Congressional and Statehouse plans violated Section 5 of the VRA by “diminishing the ability of citizens of the United States, on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, to elect their preferred candidates of choice.” (Texas has lost more Section 5 enforcement suits than any other state.)

Only by reading the voluminous lawsuits filed against the state can one appreciate just how creative Texas Republicans had to be to so successfully dilute and suppress the state’s minority vote. According to a lawsuit filed by a host of civil rights groups, “even though Whites’ share of the population declined from 52 percent to 45 percent, they remain the majority in 70 percent of Congressional Districts.” To cite just one of many examples: in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the Hispanic population increased by 440,898, the African-American population grew by 152,825 and the white population fell by 156,742. Yet white Republicans, a minority in the metropolis, control four of five Congressional seats. Despite declining in population, white Republicans managed to pick up two Congressional seats in the Dallas and Houston areas. In fact, whites are the minority in the state’s five largest counties but control twelve of nineteen Congressional districts.

On August 28, 2012, a federal court in Washington found that Texas’s redistricting maps were “enacted with discriminatory purpose” and violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Texas Republicans not only failed to grant new power to minority voters in the state, the court found, they also took away vital economic resources from minority Democratic members of Congress.

From the opinion:

Congressman Al Green, who represents CD 9, testified that “substantial surgery” was done to his district that could not have happened by accident. The Medical Center, Astrodome, rail line, and Houston Baptist University — the “economic engines” of the district — were all removed in the enacted plan. The enacted plan also removed from CD 9 the area where Representative Green had established his district office. Likewise, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents CD 18, testified that the plan removed from her district key economic generators as well as her district office. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of CD 30 also testified that the plan removed the American Center (home of the Dallas Mavericks), the arts district, her district office, and her home from CD 30. The mapdrawers also removed the district office, the Alamo, and the Convention Center (named after the incumbent’s father), from CD 20, a Hispanic ability district.

No such surgery was performed on the districts of Anglo incumbents. In fact, every Anglo member of Congress retained his or her district office. Anglo district boundaries were redrawn to include particular country clubs and, in one case, the school belonging to the incumbent’s grandchildren. And Texas never challenged evidence that only minority districts lost their economic centers by showing, for example, that the same types of changes had been made in Anglo districts.

The only explanation Texas offers for this pattern is “coincidence.” But if this was coincidence, it was a striking one indeed. It is difficult to believe that pure chance would lead to such results. The State also argues that it “attempted to accommodate unsolicited requests from a bipartisan group of lawmakers,” and that “[w]ithout hearing from the members, the mapdrawers did not know where district offices were located.” But we find this hard to believe as well. We are confident that the mapdrawers can not only draw maps but read them, and the locations of these district offices were not secret. The improbability of these events alone could well qualify as a “clear pattern, unexplainable on grounds other than race,” and lead us to infer a discriminatory purpose behind the Congressional Plan.

The interim maps drawn by three judges in San Antonio in March 2012 rectified some of the worst injustices in the legislature’s maps. The court restored a majority-minority Congressional district in South Texas and created a new one in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area. It also moved Congressional offices and major landmarks back into the districts of Democratic members of Congress, and created three additional majority-Hispanic districts in the Texas House. But the interim maps were based largely on the state’s discriminatory original maps and were drawn before the DC court had a chance to weigh in.

“There’s no question the interim maps are an improvement,” says Michael Li, a Texas redistricting expert who runs the invaluable blog txredistricting.org. “But there still are a lot of open issues that need a hard look because the maps were hastily drawn and designed to be interim, and the San Antonio court didn’t have the benefit of the DC court’s ruling, including its finding of intentional discrimination.”

Li says that based on the state’s rapid population growth, legislators should have drawn an additional majority-Hispanic Congressional seat in North Texas and a Democratic-leaning district in Austin’s Travis County, along with six to seven more state House seats with a higher minority population that are more favorable to Democrats. Between 2010 and 2011, Texas gained 687,305 new eligible voters, 83 percent of them non-white, a trend that has political analysts speculating that Texas will turn purple in the not-so-distant future. But instead of accounting for this population growth and the DC court’s findings of discrimination, Texas Republicans want to make the interim maps permanent before the San Antonio court has a chance to act in order to fortify their majorities.

Every Democrat in the state House and eleven of twelve Democrats in the Senate signed a letter to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott opposing adoption of the interim maps. “When you overlay the evidence presented at trial with the demographic explosion that’s happened in this state and the fact that minorities are unaccountable for at significant levels, it tells me we have a lot of work to do,” says Democratic State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

Perhaps to appease its critics, the legislature has scheduled a series of field hearings on the redistricting maps, starting this week in Dallas. “I believe that there is the capacity to make changes to the maps,” says Martinez Fischer. “There doesn’t appear to this rampant resistance that existed two years ago in what was a hyper-partisan environment. There seems to be reasonable minds who think we should make some changes, but I’m not sure that folks have been able to come to terms with it politically.” But Matt Angle says Texas Republicans are only holding hearings now, two years after passage of the original maps, in an attempt to convince the court in any future lawsuit that they’ve complied with the Voting Rights Act. “They’re clearly sham hearings,” he says. “They made it clear, when it’s all over, that they just intend to pass the interim maps.”

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The San Antonio court signaled, in a hearing last week, that the interim maps needed further review, especially in light of the DC court’s finding of intentional discrimination, which has put Republicans on the defensive. “Whether these [legislative] hearings are a façade or we’re really going to work in a meaningful way to adopt a resolution, the court is paying close attention,” says Martinez Fischer.

Texas has joined a lawsuit before the Supreme Court arguing that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. In reality, the state is the perfect case study for why Section 5 is still badly needed. Without Section 5, there would have been no finding of intentional discrimination from the DC court and no modified interim maps drawn quickly by the San Antonio court. Instead, the discriminatory maps enacted by the legislature in 2011 would’ve immediately become law, the court in San Antonio might’ve taken years to get involved and members of Congress would have been elected under maps that would’ve otherwise been declared unconstitutional. (Texas’s voter ID law, which was similarly blocked by a federal court, would also be in effect right now.) “Anybody who says that Section 5 has outlived its utility hasn’t looked at Texas,” says Nina Perales, director of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It has played an extraordinary role in protecting minority voters.”

UPDATE: At a Texas Republican Party meeting in Dallas on May 20, Ken Emanuelson, a local Tea Party leader, was asked, "what can Republicans do to get black people to vote?" He responded, "I’m going to be real honest with you, the Republican Party doesn’t want black people to vote if they’re going to vote 9-to-1 for Democrats.” Comments like these don't bode well for the party's minority outreach.

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