Texas’ redistricting plan was denied pre-clearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) last week by a U.S. District court in D.C. Essentially, the court ruled that the Texas congressional and state maps purposefully denied Latinos the ability to elect a candidate of their choice, and thus, the maps did not comply with the VRA. So while some may see this ruling as simply a victory for minority voters in Texas, the ruling also appears to be a win for section 5 of the VRA throughout the country.
Section 5 of the VRA requires states with a history of discriminatory voting behavior to seek pre-clearance for redistricting plans from the government. In its suit, the State of Texas argued that section 5 was an overreach by the federal government into state sovereignty, according to Dr. Henry Flores, professor of Political Science and Dean of the Graduate School at St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio, Texas.
“There’s a nationwide attack on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, to me, this decision is a great victory,” Flores said. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the court to rule this piece of legislation unconstitutional, claiming that the state no longer needed to be checked for its historic racial redistricting procedures.
“Essentially, the court said ‘You guys are crazy,’” said Flores, who was also an expert witness in a MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) lawsuit against Texas over redistricting.
In a statement, MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz said: “The intransigent refusal of Texas officials to comply with the Voting Rights Act, particularly with regard to the state’s rapidly-growing Latino population, has once again resulted in the possibility that Texas will be grappling with congressional and legislative redistricting well into the decade. Texas should abandon this obstreperous path and work to quickly adopt maps that comply with all sections of the VRA.”
San Antonio State Senator Leticia Van de Putte was a loud voice in the state legislature against the maps as they were being drawn, and said she doesn’t believe they were purposefully racist, but rather, reflected partisan goals.
“The maps disrespected minority growth, so I felt we needed to protect and give accurate reflection of the growth of the state,” she told Politic365. “Republicans have the majorities in both chambers and their goal is to draw maps that enhance their probability of keeping seats, or gaining seats — and that, in and of itself, is not a goal that is unconstitutionally illegal.”
Section 5 in Texas is still needed because the racial element in redistricting in this latest round was very evident, Professor Flores explained. Although Texas claimed that it was a coincidence with no racial intent that resulted in the maps’ makeup of voters, there were several pieces of evidence in the trial that proved it was too systematic for that to be true. For example, an email where mapdrawers were given instructions on how to develop a metric to make a congressional district both majority Hispanic, but under-performing in terms of voter turnout, he said.
“I think what my Republican colleagues would have you believe is that they don’t have an intent to discriminate — but if they do, it’s unintentional,” Senator Van de Putte said. “I think the court and Congress have held that it doesn’t matter what is intended, it’s the effect.”
And Van de Putte noted an interesting contradiction in this entire battle. Republican leadership in Texas has been vocal about wanting a test case (such as this one) to be brought before the Supreme Court in order to see Section 5 overturned — which is odd, considering that in 2006 the VRA was reauthorized by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush for another 25 years.
Another interesting contradiction is that Texas’ secretary of state Greg Abbott already said he would appeal the redistricting decision to the Supreme Court. Yet, Professor Flores notes that the unanimous decision by the D.C. court was made largely by two Republican appointees. So, despite Republicans’ seeming ambivalence about the VRA, Flores said if Abbott strikes out again with the Supreme Court with his argument that section 5 should be eliminated, then it’s likely this part of the VRA will remain in place.