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After Voting Rights Decision, Texas Counties Revive Electoral Shenanigans

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Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell
Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell.

Well, that was quick.

Mere months after the U.S. Supreme Court declawed the Voting Rights Act by undermining pre-clearance—the process by which the Department of Justice prevented potentially racist electoral shenanigans—at least three Texas counties are trying to do exactly what the law once stopped them from doing.

In Pasadena, an entrenched mayor has proposed redrawing City Council district lines to eliminate two of the current eight districts and make those seats at-large. At-large seats have historically been used to dilute minority voting blocs by expanding the voter base to include the majority. Critics say the plan is meant to check the power of the city’s growing Hispanic north side. The Justice Department used to be one of those critics and shot down a similar scheme in Pasadena just last year, but, with the pre-clearance requirement gone, the plan has already been revived.

In Galveston, a rejected proposal to slash the number of justice of the peace districts from eight to four has also risen from the dead. The Justice Department blocked the move last year because it eliminated one of the two JP districts in which African-American and Hispanic voters constituted a majority, and because three white Galveston County commissioners hatched the idea with no input from the fourth commissioner, who is black. But with shame and originality in short supply, the Anglo trio has now trotted out the same scheme, prompting a coalition of black and Hispanic constables, justices of the peace and Galveston County residents to file a federal lawsuit.

And in Beaumont, litigation and at-large districts combined in a convoluted plot to oust three of the four black school board members from a school district that is almost half black.

In brief: During the last school board election, three white candidates lost to three black incumbents. Unwilling to let the democratic process stand in the way of their civic duty, the three losers filed candidacy papers for a special election that had yet to be announced. Then they waited for the filing deadline to pass and convinced a state court to call said special election. Obviously, the three black incumbents hadn’t announced candidacy for the seats they had just won because they weren’t tipped off about the impending special election.

The Justice Department filed a temporary injunction to halt the election, but then came Shelby Co. v. Holder, the Supreme Court decision that said Texas is no longer subject to the pre-clearance requirement. Now the losers of the Beaumont school board races are suing to replace the incumbents outright.

When the Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act in 1966, it cited a “pervasive evil” committed through “unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.” While the levels of ingenuity may vary, unchecked power grabs like these will likely return to pervasion, unremitting.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.