by Lois Beckett and Suevon Lee, ProPublica
How does Texas discriminate against minority voters? Federal judges counted the ways.
Last Tuesday, a panel of federal court judges ruled that new district maps drawn by Texas’ Republican-controlled legislature weakened the influence of Latino voters and in some cases evinced “discriminatory intent” against both Latinos and African Americans. Two days later, another panel of federal judges unanimously struck down a voter-ID law passed by the legislature in March 2011, arguing that it would disproportionately harm African-American and Latino voters. The judges did not address whether there was discriminatory purpose behind the legislation, but they noted that the legislature failed to pass amendments that would have mitigated the law’s discriminatory impact.
Minority groups have outnumbered whites in Texas since roughly 2004, and 55.2 percent of the state’s residents are now minorities, according to Census figures. As of 2011, the state’s legislature was more than two-thirds white.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office declined to comment on the specifics of the rulings, but Abbott has promised to appeal both cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. In news releases, he said that the Supreme Court had already upheld voter-ID laws, and that the redistricting decision “extends the Voting Rights Act beyond the limits intended by Congress and beyond the boundaries imposed by the Constitution.”
Both decisions hinged on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain states with a history of racial discrimination in voting — including Texas — to prove that any changes in their voting laws or procedures do not hamper the voting rights of minorities. Enacted in 1965, the Voting Rights Act aimed to eliminate discriminatory voting practices that had long been used to suppress the black vote, particularly in southern states. Section 5 has been challenged, including in two cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, as an outdated provision that unfairly singles out certain states. The Court has not decided if it will hear the cases.
The rulings detailed several examples of discriminatory practices in Texas:
1. Lawmakers drew some districts that looked like Latino majority districts on paper — but removed Latinos who voted regularly and replaced them with Latinos who were unlikely to vote.
In the redistricting case, a panel of three federal judges found that Texas lawmakers had intentionally created districts that would weaken the influence of Latino voters, while appearing to satisfy the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
In drawing Texas’ 23rd congressional district, the judges found that “The mapdrawers consciously replaced many of the district’s active Hispanic voters with low-turnout Hispanic voters in an effort to strengthen the voting power of [Congressional District] 23’s Anglo citizens. In other words, they sought to reduce Hispanic voters’ ability to elect without making it look like anything in [Congressional District] 23 had changed.”
In 2010, the 23rd district narrowly elected a Latino Republican, Francisco “Quico” Canseco. One email to a Republican mapdrawer, released during the legal battle over the maps, shows that Republicans were trying to increase the chances Canseco would be re-elected.
Lawmakers used a similar tactic in redrawing a state house district, modifying it “so that it would elect the Anglo-preferred candidate yet would look like a Hispanic ability district on paper,” the court ruled. An “ability district” is one in which a minority group has the capability to elect representatives of its choosing. The judges concluded that the legislature had been trying to make this district appear as if it satisfied the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, while actually trying to benefit white voters.
Judge Thomas B. Griffith, writing the unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, called it “a deliberate, race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote.”