Redistricting is Back (Again)

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One of Dr. King’s most enduring achievements was the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, landmark legislation that outlawed discriminatory voting practices and upheld the principle of one person, one vote in this country.  Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, states with a past history of racial discrimination – like Texas — must get “preclearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing any laws that affect voting, including state redistricting plans establishing congressional, State House and Senate district boundaries.

Last year, the election maps drafted by the legislature were voided by federal courts because they violated the rights of minority voters under the Civil Rights Act. As a result, the temporary, interim maps used in 2012 elections for State House, State Senate and Congressional districts were drawn by the U.S. District Court in San Antonio. These maps, while better, also contained flaws that need to be addressed.

Governor Perry has called a special session on redistricting, but for the sole purpose of adopting – without any changes – the interim maps drafted by the courts, even though they include features that – in my and many legal experts’ view – continue to violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act.So how did we get here? Every 10 years, state legislatures review new census data and redraw the districts of their elected representatives, from the State Board of Education to members of Congress. Texas continued to experience tremendous growth, and that meant our state added four new members of Congress, and dramatically changed State House and Senate districts.

African-Americans and Hispanics accounted for over 90 percent of that growth, which should have meant additional seats for minority candidates.  Unfortunately, the Republican-dominated legislature drew maps which ignored this growth and packed minority voters into fewer districts, weakening their voting strength while strengthening Anglo voting power in Texas. For instance, of the four congressional districts created, only one real minority opportunity district was created, despite the fact that nearly all Texas’ growth is due to minority – predominantly Hispanic – growth. And that district was in North Texas, not Harris County.

It was even worse in state legislative races. Nearly 90 percent of Texas growth is due to growing minority population, yet we gained no new seats in House and Senate. Texas is now 54.1 percent minority – and growing – yet only one-third of Texas legislative seats are minority opportunity districts. The numbers didn’t add up, so a three-judge federal court ruled that the State Senate, State House and congressional redistricting plans adopted by the Legislature violated Section 5 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act.  Perhaps more importantly, the judges unanimously ruled that the state-passed Senate and congressional plans were drawn with a discriminatory purpose.

It is a sad and discomfiting fact that Texas is the only state in the country which adopted redistricting plans following the 2010 Census that have been ruled to be deliberately discriminatory to African-American and Latino voters.  Other states covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, were able to adopt redistricting plans without deliberately discriminating against their minority citizens.  In each instance these other covered states gained approval of their plans under the Voting Rights Act. Not Texas.

Of further concern, Attorney General Greg Abbott, on behalf of the Governor and our legislative leaders, is currently arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that the state-passed discriminatory redistricting plans be reactivated and put in place for the 2014 elections.  His briefs to the High Court include an explicit argument attacking Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the key provision protecting the minority voters we represent from exactly the type of discrimination contained within the state-passed maps.

While the interim Senate plan restored the ability of minority voters to elect their preferred candidate in Senate District 10 in North Texas, the same cannot be said of the interim State House and congressional plans.  These interim plans continue many features of the state-passed maps that undermine the voting strength and voting rights of African American and Latino voters in Texas. Further, data from the Texas Legislative Counsel regarding the Harris County region is telling the total minority population is nearly 88 percent.  In District 15 minority residents make up nearly 72 percent of the population.  In just these three districts, there are over two million minority residents, while there are barely over 400,000 Anglo residents.

Harris County contains nearly 1.7 million Latino residents and over 800,000 African American residents.  African American plus Latino residents in Harris make up approximately 60 percent of the county population, while Anglos make up fewer than 33 percent.  Adjacent Fort Bend County’s population is just 36 percent Anglo but nearly 50 percent African American plus Latino.  It is apparent that the Senate Districts in the Harris County region are configured to concentrate the minority voters in as few districts as possible, thereby, undermining and diluting their actual voting strength. The interim maps were never meant to be permanent, yet that is exactly what Governor Perry wants the legislature to do during this special session. I don’t think that is right and I don’t believe the federal courts will either.

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