A suburb outside of Houston is considering a voting system that could make it more difficult to elect minority candidates. The proposal is one of a number of measures now flooding the state that would have been subject to federal “pre-clearance” before the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act in June.
Pasadena, Texas Mayor Johnny Isbell’s proposal would change two of the town’s single-member districts into at-large districts. While voters in single-member districts simply vote for a candidate to directly represent their district, at-large districts involve voters electing multiple candidates to represent a much larger district. This prevents strong minority coalitions from forming and rallying around a minority candidate. A similar measure in Farmers Branch, Texas, was invalidated as a violation of the VRA earlier this month.
According to the National League of Cities’ guide to municipal elections, at-large voting districts “can weaken the representation of particular groups, especially if the group does not have a citywide base of operations or is an ethnic or racial group concentrated in a specific ward.” In other words, wealthy candidates who have more money to run large campaigns and reach out to the majority of voters usually win. Typically, this means that white candidates win because the newly enlarged districts tend to be majority white.
Consequently, minority candidates have far bigger obstacles to winning because their support base is underrepresented. As FairVote.org noted, “at-large systems allow 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of seats, and in consequence typically result in racially and politically homogenous elected bodies.”
Texas has become Ground Zero in suppressing minority voters. Previously, a federal court found that the state’s redistricting plan “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.” This reduced the likelihood that a Hispanic candidate would be elected in that district.
The plan was also found to have done “substantial surgery” to traditionally black Congressional districts, isolating representatives from their fundraising bases. The state’s attorney general even bragged about how the redrawn districts would improve Republican electoral prospects in a recent court filing.
In addition to redistricting, Texas has implemented one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws even though the Department of Justice struck it down last year.
All of this comes after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, throwing out federal preclearance of voting rules, which will make it much easier for states like Texas to implement these proposals. FairVote pointed out that at-large districts “have frequently been struck down under the Voting Rights Act for not providing communities of color with fair representation.”
The SCOTUS ruling did, however, leave room for states to revive pre-clearance for particularly egregious situations, and left other less-used provisions of the VRA untouched. In fact, the Department of Justice sued Texas on Thursday, challenging Texas’ voter ID law under Section 2 of the VRA, and asking the court to reinstate preclearance under Section 3 based evidence of discrimination in both the ID law and its 2011 redistricting plan. The state, meanwhile, is responding with moves to nuke the remainder of the Voting Rights Act.
Marina Fang is an intern for ThinkProgress.