Washington vs. Texas: Voting rights battle rages on
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July 26th, 2013, 01:03 PM
Princess of the Law
Join Date: Jul 2013
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder is planning to mess with Texas — at least when it comes to voting law — and the rest of the country will be watching to see what happens.
Last month, the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act, limiting the federal government's ability to keep states from altering their voting laws, even when those states have a documented history of discrimination.
The same day, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would immediately move to implement a controversial voter ID law and a Republican-led redrawing of state legislative maps, both of which were approved in 2011 but put on hold by federal courts.
Now Holder's Department of Justice is pushing back, asking a federal judge to use a different part of the Voting Rights Act to block the changes, and setting up Texas as a test of the Justice Department's ability to challenge voting rules across the South that critics say disenfranchise minority voters.
Abbott called the new federal scrutiny "political theater" based on lawsuits that were vacated by the June Supreme Court ruling, the Dallas Morning News reports. When the Justice Department blocked Texas' voter ID law last year, Gov. Rick Perry said that Texas has a responsibility to ensure elections that are "beyond reproach" and that "the DOJ has no valid reason for rejecting this important law, which requires nothing more extensive than the type of photo identification necessary to receive a library card or board an airplane."
"I do think other states are watching what happens in Texas," said Gerry Hebert, a voting rights attorney in Washington who has challenged the state in several federal cases. "It's a breeding ground for discrimination. They try things there first and then other states replicate it, it seems."
A ProPublica investigation published before the Supreme Court heard the Voting Rights case last year documented five ways courts say Texas discriminated against black and Latino voters, including breaking up minority districts and drawing "districts that would weaken the influence of Latino voters, while appearing to satisfy the requirements of the Voting Rights Act."
One of the contested legislative districts belonged to state Sen. Wendy Davis, who entered the national spotlight last month with her 13-hour filibuster of a controversial abortion law. The redistricting moved the black and Latino voters that helped elect her into five other majority-white districts.
Hebert represented Davis in a lawsuit and courts ordered the old district re-assembled before the 2012 election. But Davis remains Republicans' "No. 1 target," Hebert said, and her district could be redrawn again before 2014.
In addition to voter ID and legislative districts, courts have found that Texas discriminated against minorities in its drawing of congressional districts, most famously in 2003, when then Congressman Tom DeLay spearheaded a redistricting effort that the Justice Department said violated the Voting Rights Act. In 2006, the Supreme Court ordered one of the new districts redrawn and DeLay resigned from Congress while under indictment for funneling corporate funds to state candidates.
Texas has argued in court that Democrats and minority groups had plenty of opportunity to weigh in on new legislative maps. Perry and his lieutenant governor said in an op-ed that the 2012 maps corrected for every allegation of wrongdoing, and it's time to move on.
"I think one of the reasons that Texas is the first to be blessed with this additional scrutiny is they're the ones that get up on their hind legs and beat their chests and cry federal overreach," said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Republicans say they're defending the integrity of the election process, Jillson said, while Democrats see the GOP fighting off a demographic tsunami — the state became "majority minority" in 2004 and continues to see an influx of minorities, especially Latinos, who tend to vote Democratic. That shift could make Texas a swing state in coming decades.
"In the first half of the 2020s, demographics would suggest that the Democrats would become competitive," Jillson said. "But right now, Republicans dominate."
Other states with voter ID laws are watching Texas closely. North Carolina moved forward with its law this week. Holder on Tuesday promised that Texas would be the first target in a voting rights crackdown, but not the last.
"I'm not a betting man, but if I were I'd be betting big money on North Carolina being the next target," Hebert said.
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