Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Whether Texas Redistricting Diluted Latino, African-American Votes

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By Elizabeth Beyer 4-25-2018

The Supreme Court on Tuesday debated whether new congressional districts drawn up in Texas constitute “racial gerrymandering” because they intentionally dilute the voting blocs of new Latino and black residents, a case that could have a lasting effect on how electoral districts are drawn.

Between 2000 and 2010, Latinos and African Americans made up 90 percent of Texas’ population growth, which gave the state four new congressional seats. But in Abbott v. Perez, a group of Latino and African-American voters argued that when Texas redrew its congressional and legislative districts, it intentionally diluted Latino and African-American voting strength by drawing district lines to divide or avoid the communities.

In 2017 the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled 2-1 that the electoral maps drawn in 2011 for the 27th and 35th Congressional Districts and seven Texas House Districts violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. The court then gave the Texas attorney general three days to advise whether the state would redistrict the electoral map in an “effort to cure these violations.” According to the solicitor general, this was not enough time for the state to solidify a new electoral map on the eve of the 2017 election.

“This was not the legislature trying to pull a fast one on anyone,” Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller told the justices during Tuesdays oral arguments.

But Justice Stephen Breyer noted, "The Texas legislation is not insane, it knows how to redistrict … Discrimination is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results."

Common Cause, a voter advocacy organization established in the 1970s as part of the “good government movement” following Watergate, filed a brief in support of the case last month.

“It’s pretty clear that the system we have in place isn’t working,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the organization’s Texas branch.

In a statement, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said Tuesday that the state has a history of drawing questionable electoral maps.

“From restrictive voter ID laws to racial gerrymandering, the state legislature has a history of minority disenfranchisement. It’s about time the Supreme Court corrects the failures of our leadership and restores justice for the people of Texas,” Castro said.

Another Texas Democrat, Rep. Shirley Jackson Lee, said that for years “state legislatures in Texas and throughout the nation have drawn voting districts in a manner that minimizes or marginalizes the voices of certain segments of the electorate, typically minorities and the poor. I urge the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court in San Antonio and direct the Texas legislature to draw a map that affirms the principle known as ‘one person, one vote.’”

According to Dr. Harvey Tucker, a political science professor at Texas A&M University, in order to redraw the electoral map before the 2018 midterm congressional elections in November, the governor, Republican Greg Abbott, would have to call a special session of the legislature, which is unlikely because the current districts favor the Republican Party. And, a special election in Texas for a vacant seat in one of the congressional districts in dispute – Texas; 27th Congressional District — is coming up soon because former GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold resigned at the beginning of April amid allegations that he used taxpayer money to pay sexual harassment settlements in 2015.

Of the 23 Texas Republican members of Congress, contacted for this story, none provided a comment.

Elizabeth Beyer is a multimedia political reporter for the Medill News Service and master’s candidate at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, with a focus on visual and interactive storytelling. She has contributed reporting to the New York Times, The Columbus Dispatch, and worked for tronc, Inc (the company formerly known as Tribune Publishing). 

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