When the Supreme Court dismantled a key provision of the Voting Rights Act last June, there were two small silver linings in this decision. The first was the possibility that Congress could revive the regime killed by the Court, where states with particularly poor records of racialized voter suppression must “preclear” their voting practices with the Justice Department or a federal court before those practices can take effect. The second potential silver lining is Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows a state to be brought back under the preclearance requirement if a court finds that it engaged in “violations of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment justifying equitable relief.”
Now, however, Texas wants to destroy these two silver linings as well. And there is a fair chance that the conservative Supreme Court will allow them to do so.
Late last month, the Justice Department joined a Section 3 lawsuit claiming that federal supervision of Texas’ election practices should be reinstated in light of very recent examples of intentional race discrimination by Texas. Among other things, a federal court found that Texas “consciously replaced many of [a] district’s active Hispanic voters with low-turnout Hispanic voters in an effort to strengthen the voting power of [the district's] Anglo citizens.” These, the Justice Department explained, were “violations of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment” justifying federal supervision.
Texas’ response to the Justice Department does not simply reject the idea that it should be subject to preclearance, it calls upon the courts to declare virtually any preclearance regime unconstitutional. According to Texas, the Supreme Court’s decision hobbling the Voting Rights Act “threw out Congress’s reauthorization of a preclearance regime because the legislative record failed to show ‘anything approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that faced Congress in 1965, and that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the Nation at that time.’” In other words, Texas wants a federal court order saying that any effort to reinstate the Voting Rights Act in Texas is unconstitutional unless Texas transforms into Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era.
And they may very well succeed in getting this order. While Texas’ theory cannot be squared with the text of the Fifteenth Amendment — which provides that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and gives Congress “power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” — it is not that hard to square with the Supreme Court’s recent decision. Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion does indeed contain language suggesting that only something “approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that faced Congress in 1965″ can permit a preclearance regime now. The fact that this language flies in the face of the Constitution is not likely to bother the five conservative justices who already signed onto it once.
As a final act of chutzpah, Texas also claims that it cannot be subject to preclearance because “Hispanic citizens in Texas registered to vote at higher rates” than Hispanics in other states not subject to federal supervision under the Voting Rights Act. That very well be true, but it’s also besides the point. The thrust of the Justice Department’s lawsuit is that Texas intentionally drew its district lines so that white votes would count more and Hispanic votes would count less. In other words, the whole purpose of these lines was to make sure that it didn’t matter if Hispanic voters registered at high rates because their voting power would still be diluted by gerrymandering. It’s like a basketball referee claiming that it doesn’t matter that he’s not counting all the points scored by one team because that team is taking more shots.