The redistricting battle in Texas is just heating up

A ruling this week could send a debate over voting rights to the Supreme Court.

Protesters gather outside the federal court house, Monday, July 10, 2017, in San Antonio. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
Protesters gather outside the federal court house, Monday, July 10, 2017, in San Antonio. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Texas could be headed to the Supreme Court after a federal court ruled Tuesday that two of the state’s congressional districts violate both the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

In a 107-page decision, three judges in San Antonio declared that the districts had been purposefully re-drawn to mitigate the electoral power of Hispanic voters. Texans of color have been denied “their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice,” the judges said, pointing to District 27, which includes the city of Corpus Christi, and District 35, which runs from Austin to San Antonio. The panel also noted that if Texas lawmakers do not begin re-drawing the map as it currently stands, legal action will be pursued.

The decision was well-received by many voting rights activists. Brent Wilkes, chief executive of the League of United Latin American Citizens and one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the ruling was particularly important to Latinx Texans.

“It backs up what we’ve been saying, that the Texas Legislature intentionally diminished the rights of Latino voters in particular to elect the candidates of their choice,” he said. “We feel that we’ve been vindicated in the courts.”

But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) slammed the decision in a statement released shortly after the ruling, implying the dispute over redistricting is far from over.

“We appreciate that the panel ruled in favor of Texas on many issues in the case.  But the portion of the ruling that went against Texas is puzzling considering the Legislature adopted the congressional map the same court itself adopted in 2012, and the Obama-era Department of Justice did not bring any claims against the map,” Paxton said. “We look forward to asking the Supreme Court to decide whether Texas had discriminatory intent when relying on the district court.”

Tuesday’s ruling is only the latest chapter in a lengthy six-year saga over the voting rights in the state. Texas is “majority minority,” with a rapidly growing Latinx community. White Texans, who represent only 43 percent of the state, should theoretically hold less power at the state level. But that’s not the case—and voting rights activists have pointed to gerrymandering as the reason why.

Of particular contention are actions taken by state Republicans six years ago. Following the release of 2010 census data indicating Latinx and black communities in Texas were growing rapidly, lawmakers swiftly re-drew state voting maps. That seemingly partisan move came under heavy fire from minority groups, who pushed for the maps to be re-drawn once more. Temporary maps were drawn in 2012 and adopted in 2013, but they’ve yet to be replaced, something activists have repeatedly criticized.

That came to a head last spring, when judges ruled three of the state’s 36 congressional districts were drawn illegally. A later ruling determined that current voting maps were intentionally drawn to discriminate against black and brown voters in Texas.

“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. “Instead of using race to provide equal electoral opportunity, they intentionally used it to undermine Latino voting opportunity,” he added.

Tuesday’s decision (and Paxton’s response) means that the case could now be headed as far as the Supreme Court—which could have broad reverberations nationally.

In the time since the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013—which required numerous states, cities, and municipalities to seek approval over voting procedures—advocates have voiced concern over the implications facing voters of color. Texas, among the nine states targeted by the Voting Rights Act, is proving to be a cautionary tale. With no federal approval needed, Texas, and other states, including North Carolina, have grown bolder in their redistricting efforts.

Re-drawing voting maps in Texas will have major implications for upcoming elections in 2018, something party officials are keeping in mind. That point was also driven home in a statement released after Tuesday’s ruling by Gilerbto Hinojosa, chairman for the Texas Democratic Party.

“It is wrong, and although nothing can fully make it right, we now hope to stop it,” Hinojosa said, referring to gerrymandering in Texas. “Texas Democrats look forward to ensuring Texans have fair maps in the remedy hearings to come.”

If the case does go to the Supreme Court, it’s unclear what the result would be. The Court has already signaled that it is ready to consider a different case from Wisconsin concerning issues of partisan gerrymandering, which could have implications for disputes around the country. But experts have pointed out that the case in Texas concerns accusations of racial, not partisan, bias, something that could offer a different result than the Wisconsin case.

Whether the Court even has the opportunity to take up the case will be known soon—Texas officials were given until Friday to formally respond to the redistricting ruling. But regardless of where the case heads next, the state is facing censure over voting rights more broadly. In another ruling issued Wednesday, a panel of three judges declared Texas had restricted the interpretation assistance voters with English language limitations are allowed.  A provision of the Texas Election Code requires interpreters to be registered to vote in the same county as the voter they assist—something judges ruled flies in violation of federal law.