On June 27, 2013, two days after the Supreme Court ruled that states with a long history of voting discrimination no longer needed to approve their voting changes under the Voting Rights Act, the mayor of Pasadena, Texas, proposed changing the structure of City Council elections so that whites could remain in control. With Latinos close to gaining a majority of seats in the racially divided city of 150,000 outside of Houston, Mayor Johnny Isbell proposed switching from eight City Council districts to six districts and two seats elected citywide—which would give white residents, who turn out in higher numbers, a better shot at electing their preferred candidates. The net effect was that one majority-Latino district was eliminated, and Latinos had three fewer seats on the council.
Isbell proposed the change “because the Justice Department can no longer tell us what to do.” Voters narrowly approved the referendum in 2013, even though 99.6 percent of Latinos opposed it.
On Friday, a federal district court in Texas found that white officials in Pasadena “intentionally discriminated against Latinos.” The court ordered new elections under the previous districts and, because of the finding of intentional discrimination, required Pasadena to approve all future election changes with the federal government for at least five years. It is the first jurisdiction to be subject to preclearance requirements since the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision.
In 2013, Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, cheered the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, calling it “good news…for the South.” He claimed, “If you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.”
In fact, as the decision in Pasadena shows, there is ample evidence of ongoing voting discrimination throughout the South (and beyond). Sessions’s home state of Alabama tried to close 31 DMV offices, many in majority-black counties, after instituting strict photo-ID requirements to vote. “In the 10 counties with the highest proportion of minorities, the state closed driver’s license offices in eight,” wrote Kyle Whitmore of AL.com. The US Department of Transportation found that the closures violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Alabama agreed last month to increase hours as part of the federal settlement.
Elsewhere, North Carolina passed the country’s worst voter-suppression law in July 2013, which the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Georgia was found to have illegally purged tens of thousands of voters, who were disproportionately people of color, from the rolls. Texas’s voter-ID law was judged to be discriminatory by the very conservative US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. And on it goes.