Judges will rule on racial gerrymandering in Texas, with national implications

Gerrymandering has left Texans of color unrepresented across the state, in a move minority groups say was intentional and illegal.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

Minorities are the majority in Texas, but state and district maps purposefully do not reflect this, according to a major redistricting court case.

In a trial that could have major implications for other cases across the country—as well as for millions of Texans of color—three judges in San Antonio are spending this week listening to arguments alleging that Texas Republicans redrew the state’s district map in order to put minorities at a disadvantage. With elections in 2018 looming large, Texas progressives are especially keen to counter what they say is a clear effort to hinder minority voters at the polls.

“I am still flummoxed as to how we do not have a Latino congressman from North Texas,” State Representative Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) testified on Tuesday.

Johnson’s point—that numerous parts of Texas are represented by white politicians, as opposed to the minorities they represent—is one many Texans echoed this week. Cody Ray Wheeler, who represents a majority-white city council district in majority-Latinx Pasadena, told the Texas Tribune he likely won his seat because of his last name, which fails to mark him as Hispanic.

“A Hispanic wasn’t supposed to win that seat,” Wheeler said. “I could not run as a Hispanic candidate. I would’ve lost.”

When he won, Wheeler became only the second Latinx member of the city council — the first time in history more than two had served at the same time.

Pasadena’s case is nothing new in Texas. Redistricting, or gerrymandering, has a long history in the state, and across the country. It’s also not an issue specific to a single party — Republicans and Democrats alike have redrawn maps to suit their political goals. But in Texas, the issue has been particularly contentious.

White Texans make up less than 43 percent of the state’s population, a number that is dwindling. By contrast, between 2000 and 2010, Texas’ Latinx population swelled from 6.7 million to 9.5 million.

“If proportionality is the key, then Texas should overwhelmingly have Latinos further along than we have,” said attorney Luis Vera, who represents the League of Latin American Citizens, on Monday.

Texas is also home to Houston, the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the nation. In 2010, new census data showed explosive growth in Texas, which gained four new seats in Congress as a result. It also showed the populations largely responsible for that growth were the state’s Latinx and African American communities, indicating likely political gain for Democrats. Seemingly in response, Texas’ Republican-controlled legislature swiftly redrew the map in 2011, sparking outrage from minority groups, who alleged black and brown voters were being targeted. In advance of elections in 2012, a court redrew temporary maps, which lawmakers adopted in 2013 and have used ever since.

But the issue resurfaced this spring, when judges ruled that three of the state’s congressional districts (Texas has 36 in total) were drawn illegally — violating the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. A month later, they went a step further, ruling that the state’s political boundaries were purposefully drawn in an effort to discriminate against minorities.

“The impact of the plan was certainly to reduce minority voting opportunity statewide, resulting in even less proportional representation for minority voters,” U.S. District Judges Orlando Garcia and Xavier Rodriguez wrote, adding, that “[i]nstead of using race to provide equal electoral opportunity, they intentionally used it to undermine Latino voting opportunity.”

The decision was a victory for minority groups, who argue the current maps were always meant to be temporary, and should be redrawn before elections are held in 2018. But the state of Texas has asked judges to dump the legal challenge, arguing lawmakers never targeted voters racially (though the state does admit to partisan influence over the maps.)

Texas’ case is reflective of a larger issue playing out in states across the country. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — along with many counties and municipalities to seek approval before making changes to voting procedure. The decision was heavily panned by voting rights activists at the time, who argued it would be used to undercut the electoral power of people of color.

Those fears seem to have played out — resulting in at least one harsh rebuke. In June, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that North Carolina had engaged in illegal racial gerrymandering when redrawing its district maps. The ruling was a rebuke to other Southern states — including Texas — and an indicator that they face an uphill battle when it comes to redistricting.

The ruling was also a reminder that Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows for states to come under federal supervision again if they are found to have discriminated intentionally against minorities, still exists. Some analysts have argued that Texas lawmakers have overplayed their hand, and, depending on the outcome of this week’s trial, the state could find itself back under federal control.

This approach is one voting rights activists are hinging their hopes on in Texas. But the state’s case is unlikely to be the last redistricting dispute in the news, if the Supreme Court is any indicator. In June, the judicial branch announced it would take up a case from Wisconsin on redistricting — a sign that the issue is likely to remain a point of contention across the country.