The Fight to Protect Voting Rights in Texas

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For those who took the recent Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act as vindication that discrimination no longer lingers deep in the heart of Texas, one only need look back to the summer of 2012 to see evidence to the contrary.

Voters arrive during the first day of early voting at a Travis County mega voting site in Austin, Texas, in 2008. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Last summer, a federal court ruled that Texas Republican lawmakers discriminated against minority voters while redrawing voting districts in 2011. U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith wrote that the 2011 redistricting map contained numerous irregularities and that Texas lawmakers drew the new boundaries “with discriminatory purpose.”

As Ari Berman reported in The Nation:

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.

Now that same map has landed in court again. Because Section 4 was thrown out by the Supreme Court, states like Texas no longer have to get pre-approval — or “preclearance” — from the Department of Justice before redistricting or enacting new voting laws. But there is a way to get preclearance back under Section 3 of the Act, a section that the justices left intact. The plaintiffs in the case — the Texas chapter of the NAACP, Democratic Senator Wendy Davis (yes, that Wendy Davis of the famous filibuster) and the Texas state legislature’s black caucus — are using the 2011 map as evidence that state lawmakers were intentionally discriminatory when they drew the boundaries and thus should be bound by preclearance requirements again. MSNBC’s Adam Serwer calls Section 3 the “secret weapon that could save the Voting Rights Act,” but he writes that success is far from guaranteed. He explains:

To impose preclearance on a jurisdiction not covered by the now-defunct Section 4 formula, you have to prove that officials intended to discriminate. Under the old formula, all that had to be proven was that the election law changes would have discriminatory effects — precisely because most people are smart enough to hide when they’re deliberately trying to discriminate.

In Texas, state officials weren’t that smart. Nevertheless, the requirement that deliberate discrimination be proven means that it will be very difficult to subject states that try to disenfranchise minority voters to preclearance, because all they need is a superficial “race-neutral” reason for making the change.

During the 2011 redistricting map case, state lawyers unsuccessfully argued that the 2011 map was nothing more than a partisan power grab that had nothing to do with race. The fact of the matter is that in Texas – and in many other Southern states – partisan politics has everything to do with race. Since 1965, Thomas Edsall writes in The New York Times, the number of black representatives in southern statehouses “has grown from fewer than five to 313, all but a handful as Democrats.” But during those same 40 years, Southern whites defected from the Democratic Party in huge numbers. And in 2012 — with the addition of Arkansas after 138 years of Democratic rule — the GOP has gained control of all 11 statehouses in the former Confederacy. Edsall writes:

Despite their growing numbers, the power of Southern blacks has been dissipated. African-American Democratic officials — according to data compiled from academic research and the Web sites of state legislatures — have been relegated to minority party status. Equally important, an estimated 86 African-Americans who spent years accumulating seniority have lost their chairmanships of state legislative committees to white Republicans.

The loss of these committee positions has meant the loss of the power to set agendas, push legislation to the floor and call hearings. At the state level, “black voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era,” wrote David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in a 2011 paper, “Resegregation in Southern Politics?”

For the moment, things in Texas “remain highly unsettled.” The San Antonio Express-News editorial board put it that way in a recent op-ed in which they also characterized Attorney General Greg Abbott’s rush to push through the state’s voter ID law as “unseemly.” The state has asked the courts to dismiss the cases brought last week, but both three-judge panels appear to be considering the challenges seriously.

As Texas Redistricting blogger and Dallas attorney Michael Li told Star-Telegram reporter Mike Norman, “There’s no question this is new territory for everyone.”

If you’re interested in following the events in Texas, we recommend Li’s excellent blog and Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog for updates on the redistricting cases.

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  • Anonymous

    Perhaps it is time to throw out districts and the electoral college and vote one man one vote. There are those who go to extreme lengths to violate the rights of others. In the interim there can be lawsuits.

  • Jack Black Smith

    The Electoral College is needed to keep States Rights in balance. “One man, one vote” gives an advantage to the most populated states.

  • Joyce

    Fighting for the voter act during the 60’s was what was thought to be a turning point in this country. Black/African Americans are the only ethnic group that did not immigrate to this country and have received such blatant racism. It is amazing how 45-million people are hated in a country they call home, has fought and died to keep safe.

    The 223-million Caucasians in this country have had to be forced to allow Black/African American their legal rights. Voting is a small part of the iceberg, Congress and the Southern Dixiecrats often have stated “…we miss the good ole days”, which may be good for them but not for Blacks. They miss getting free labor that made many Southern families wealthy to date. Many Caucasians have a disease of Entitlement, I, My, Me, Mine, and superiority.

    The aforementioned disease is not new it was passed down through generations father to son, mother to daughter regardless of financial status from 1619 to present. So not misunderstand my comment, all Blacks are not good nor all Caucasians bad, but greed perpetrates much of this behavior more so than racism.

  • Anonymous

    “One man (person), one vote” is the most fundamental building block of a democracy. Right now, small state votes count much more than large states, i.e. a vote in Wyoming counts 4 times as much as a vote in California. Nationally, this gives the advantage to the Republican Party, (see results of 2000 Presidential Election), because rural states are more Republican. As the US is the most unequal (in terms of race, gender, class, etc) of all industrialized democracies and is the most undemocratic of all industrialized democracies, the high level of inequality cannot be addressed without making our political institutions more democratic. Surely, you understand the significance of “States Rights” in preserving the “right to property” i.e. first slavery, then segregation and now the elimination of equal access to the polls, to the resulting inequality of today and tomorrow?

  • alphaomega

    Your points are well taken, but I am unable to come up either with 223 million Caucasians or 45 million Black persons through the Census Records. Perhaps you might clean up your statistics and present more effectively as counting non-blacks as Caucasians is harmful to your cause. I do think economics is always a factor in the actions of racism, but not in the manner you ascribe, although there must surely be puddles so benighted and besot with greed. Now, institutionalized racism is more corporate and economically driven than by individual malice. From the corporate penal apparatus and it’s ruthless rape of the helpless and collusion with law enforcement like ICE, to the continued isolation of the poor, we together by our complaisance have conspired to create the institutionalization of racism in America. Our drug policies are depleting our human and financial resources and further alienating and dividing our populace and our neighbors as well as distorting economies and political goals around the world. Gerrymandering is more about a person or people retaining power, influence and money than overt racism. It has always been one of the most repugnant parts of our political system and should be stopped.

    It is your time. It has always been.

  • fitz67

    Don’t worry about Texas being racist. the democrats don’t run it anymore….

  • Jerry Harness

    Great point. While in a Democracy where the majority rules, in a Republic, all groups regardless of size have a voice. While our Senator proved equal voice for each state, regardless of size, our Represenitives are based on population and allow bigger states a bigger voice.

    While not a perfect balance, it does provide for a stronger Republic.

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  • Gabriel

    Sorry to disappoint, but this isn’t a black/white issue….it’s a legally registered voter vs. NON-U.S. CITIZEN VOTER ISSUE. Since they can’t currently import and/or anoit about 30 million voters, they have decided to fiddle with the larger voter states in an attempt to maintain power and continue the economic destruction of this once great nation.

  • Gabriel

    Greed? The only greed I see is that of the party and persons who need to keep portions of the population poor, under-educated and angry in order to maintain a blinded voter base. Ask any wealthy person IF they want portions of their city to be combat zones they dare not enter. There is no advantage to having any portion of the population non/counter-productive. Crime costs money, drug rehabiliation costs money, government subsistence COSTS money. What sane conservative person wants that for ANYONE?