Feds: Proposed Texas Maps Undermine Minority Vote

The Texas Tribune by by Ross Ramsey

The new political maps for the Texas House and the state's congressional delegation don't protect the electoral power of the state's minority populations as required by the federal Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Department of Justice said in legal briefs filed in federal court Monday.

The map for the state Senate does comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, DOJ's lawyers said. The Justice Department didn't offer an opinion on the legality of the new State Board of Education map, saying instead that "the court will have to make its own determination" about that plan.

"It's consistent with what we've been saying," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. His and other groups have argued that the state didn't account for the growth in minority populations over the last 10 years — minorities made up 89 percent of the state's overall growth — and that in some cases, the Legislature actually diluted the representation that was already in place.

Texas is one of several states required under federal law to seek preclearance for any changes it makes in election law — from redistricting maps to voter ID requirements to changes in voting locations. Instead of asking the Obama administration's Justice Department for approval, the state asked the federal court in the District of Columbia for a ruling. The DOJ filing on Monday was in response to the state's action.

In the Justice Department's 10-page filing, federal lawyers "admit that the proposed Senate plan complies with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act" — the part of the law that ensures the state doesn't dilute minority voting strength.

But in legal boilerplate, the Justice Department lawyers questioned the legality of the maps for the Texas House and for the state's congressional seats, saying they "deny that the proposed Congressional plan, as compared with the benchmark, maintains or increases the ability of minority voters to elect their candidate of choice in each district protected by Section 5." The Justice Department used the same language with regard to the plan for the 150 Texas House districts.

The Texas attorney general's office, which is defending the maps — and which made the decision to go to the federal court instead of the Justice Department for preclearance — said the brief sets up approval of the SBOE and Senate maps, assuming the courts agree in this and other legal challenges. 

"Without providing details, DOJ also objected to Texas’ newly enacted House of Representatives and congressional maps," said spokeswoman Lauren Bean. "Nevertheless, the state is confident that its House of Representatives and congressional redistricting plans comply with the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. We will continue working to expeditiously obtain preclearance for the remaining maps in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C."

Nina Perales, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the ruling bolsters her group's lawsuit against the maps for the House and Congress.

"We're very pleased," she said. "We interpret the answer that the DOJ filed today to mean that they have very similar concerns."

Last week, lawyers wrapped up a two-week trial over the Texas maps, argued before a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio. While related to the case under consideration in Washington, the San Antonio trial was over a different aspect of the Voting Rights Act, and other issues.

"What you'll typically see in the analysis under Section 5 is whether minority voters are losing ground," Perales said, referring to the D.C. litigation. The San Antonio trial was about another issue, she said: "Whether or not additional districts have to be drawn is a question under a different part of the Voting Rights Act, and that's what we've been litigating in the federal court here in Texas."

The two cases will eventually result in the maps used for next year's elections; whether those are the plans drawn by the Legislature this year or plans redrawn by the courts is to be determined. The San Antonio panel hasn't issued a ruling. And the D.C. panel will hold a conference with the lawyers on all sides on Wednesday to make plans for hearings.

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