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New Redistricting Lawsuit Would Tilt State Senate In Favor of White Voters

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Texas Senate Districts
Texas Almanac

A new redistricting lawsuit filed by a national conservative group aims to make sweeping changes to the way Texas does politics, effectively diminishing the representation of non-white voters in the Texas Senate. It’s a bold effort, and while it might not win success this election cycle, Texas election law expert Michael Li says it could prove to be an important “test case” that foreshadows “one of the coming battles we’ll see in the next redistricting cycle.”

The lawsuit was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Austin by the Project on Fair Representation, a one-man outfit based in Virginia that’s scored a number of high-profile legal victories in recent years, including a successful effort to strip a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The suit seeks to overturn the longstanding method by which the Texas Legislature draws state senate districts. Texas, like all other states, draws districts that contain the same total population, using the last available round of census data. After the 2010 census, the Legislature aimed to draw 31 districts that each contained about 811,000 people.

The conservative group’s legal challenge objects to the fact that that number includes many people who can’t vote, including children, convicted felons and, most important, non-citizens—both undocumented migrants and permanent residents who are foreign nationals. The suit argues that counting people who aren’t eligible voters is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Project on Fair Representation wants the Legislature to attempt to draw senate districts that have an identical number of eligible voters, or citizen voting age population (CVAP.) Under that method, each senate district would be drawn to have about 502,000 eligible voters.

That might sound like a relatively innocuous change, but it would dramatically alter the political landscape in Texas. Redrawing districts under the new rules might decrease the political polarization in the state Senate—creating more ideologically-similar districts—but at the same time it would dramatically lessen the voice non-white voters have in the political process. Those who are too young to vote, or legally unable to vote, wouldn’t be counted as people when it comes to distributing representation in the state Senate. And urban areas like Houston, which have a large number of non-voting residents, would be effectively disadvantaged in the Senate.

The state senate districts with the highest number of non-voters are represented by state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and state Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), all of whom currently represent both a large number of children and non-citizens. They’re also among the most progressive members of the Senate.

If the conservative group’s plan were adopted today, all three would have their districts redrawn to include more eligible voters. That would mean, especially in Houston, likely pulling from the region’s pool of Anglo voters, according to Li. And those senators would also represent more people than others. Poor and young residents of the district would effectively have their voices in the Senate diluted, as their elected senator found themselves with many more constituents than before.

Meanwhile, the senators who represent districts with fewest non-voters would include state Sen. Bob Nichols (R-Jacksonville) and state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) who have whiter electorates. Their districts might not change much.

Li says the conservative group’s effort, if successful, might make certain Democratic-leaning districts more politically competitive. But asked specifically about Ellis’ and Garcia’s districts—the biggest outliers—he said the changes might be less about political affiliation than which voices are represented. “I don’t think the risk is that it becomes a Republican district per se,” he said. “But there clearly is a political benefit here, and the benefit doesn’t favor African-Americans and Hispanics.”

Moreover, he says, such a plan would be difficult to implement. The true number of voting eligible residents in a given area would be “very difficult to tabulate.” The Census doesn’t ask about citizenship status. And to exclude voting-age felons, you’d need to ascertain and track their status. “It’s really hard to do this on a state level,” he says, “especially in a state that’s as complicated as Texas.”

No state has implemented such a system, though Li says an increasing number of people on the right are giving it more consideration. He says he expects the Project on Fair Representation’s Texas suit to become “sort of like the big test case on this.”

Asked if he thinks the effort could be successful, Li hedges his bets. “It remains to be seen. I would think it would be a hard sell,” he says, “but then again I had thought that some of the other things that they’ve tried were hard sells too.” The Project on Fair Representation provided counsel to Shelby County, Alabama, which served as the plaintiff in a lawsuit that successfully voided important provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The lawsuit will be considered by a three-judge panel, and could be combined with other redistricting cases currently being considered in San Antonio. If appealed, the case will go directly to the Supreme Court for review.

Christopher Hooks joined the Observer in 2014. Previously, he was a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.

  • 1bimbo

    what the f*ck is is so ominous about white people? i know good white people, good hispanics, good asians, good black people ETC. as a matter of fact a number of races are in my own family, am i supposed to demonize one over the other? we are a multi-cultural society, descend out of your ivory tower hooks and take a closer look at texas familes, we are multi-racial.. sick of the race-baiting

    • txlakedude

      Texas is fast becoming a white Facist society. Easy to see, just listen to Perry, Abott, and the rest of them. And the Supreme Court, is supporting it.
      Doubt the voters will wake up, and pile, into the voting booths, to stop this disturbing trend.

      • 1bimbo

        you self-loathing white ‘racialists’(if i may use a made up lefty term) are the problem. i’ve lived in texas all my life and this onslaught of ‘white supremacists’ doesn’t exist. everyone is accepted until you give them a reason to reject you, typically that means anyone who is lazy, engages in illegal behavior or who c r a p s in the nest

      • Rhonda Warmack Houston

        The fact that this action is being taken and has gotten this far, says that the people have had enough of what the Texas Republicans rigging the system. The voters are awake! Now, let’s just hope that when this reaches the Supreme Court, that the decision will be for ‘the people’, not for those who want to impose their beliefs on others and are able to do so, with this rigging of the voting districts…Nothing can remain forever; what goes around eventually comes back around which means the same skewed balance presented to the people can’t forever remain and become the established means by which allows only a few to vote.

        • 1bimbo

          you and i both are ‘the people’, citizens who remain in texas are here because of the quality of life and the work opportunities, and i agree the voters ‘are awake’! we are p i s s e d off too at the notion that somehow what happens on the national stage is trying to bleed over into the lone star state… the supreme court and federal judges don’t represent you or me, they are not our elected leaders, they have no accountability and are overrun with activist judges who don’t merely interpret the constitution, they try to manipulate law.. the biggest ‘rigged’ system in our country is the judiciary!

    • Beegowl

      If you are really interested in understanding these matters I suggest you begin by reading the posts on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog on the Atlantic. Mr. Coates is a great writer and thinker and he attempts to make sense of the rampant racism (white supremacy is one factor) in our society. Hint: It ain’t going away any time soon.

      • Garl Boyd Latham

        “…the rampant racism…in our society”?!

        Oh, well; maybe you’re right. After all, I’m only a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, “hetrosexual,” able-bodied, eurocentric, native-born, middle-class, educated man (excuse me, “male”), so what do I know?

        Apparently nothing.

    • flora68

      You’re kidding, right?

      • 1bimbo

        serious as a heart attack

  • Vaughn Cox

    One simple point…the State has an obligation to serve all the people, not just eligible voters. So if one is not an eligible voter, one cannot drive on Texas roads? And if one is not an eligible voter is that person exempted from paying the state sales tax? STUPID idea aimed only at maintaining the choke-hold of conservative white voters on this state for another few years.

  • April D. Korbel

    I suppose the success or failure of this challenge will hinge on what the elected person’s obligation is. Are they elected to represent all the residents of their district or just the voters? I would argue on the “all” side, because children cannot vote but are clearly in need of representation. So too are former prisoners and undocumented residents, who, despite their status, are still human beings. Here’s hoping this effort fails.

  • Rhonda Warmack Houston

    I can’t wait until this case to go to the Supreme Court! I am so sick of all this rigging the system which all the Republican do to win. The honorable Gregg Abbott tried to do this with Wendy Davis’ voting area without her knowledge and he was taken to court and lost, which meant he had to pay the court cost of both Ms. Davis and his court costs….

  • Glenna Jones-Kachtik

    If you have to suppress people’s right to vote by rigging the system, have you really won anything? Maybe these people didn’t have father’s who told them that cheating isn’t right – either that or they don’t really read that Bible they thump a lot.

  • Glenna Jones-Kachtik

    Facts are also facts. Texas is heavily Hispanic & becoming more so all the time. They can Gerry rig & gerrymander the system all they want; but pretty soon, old rich white men will be in the minority & they better learn some humility or they just won’t be in office much more.

  • getoffmylawn

    This kind of rigging will continue as white Republicans as a group continues to shrink. The next push? Ending direct election of US Senators and return to them being elected by the House representatives. There’s also a push to allocate electoral votes for President by House districts, most of which are radically gerrymandered. If that were in effect last election, Romney would have won, even though Obama got 6 million more votes, a 4% margin. Also in 2012, Dem House candidates got around 2 million more votes, yet the GOP retained a 33 seat majority. That seems fair, right? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/24/republican-vote-rigging-electoral-college_n_2546010.html

    • 1bimbo

      gerrymandering is a myth, the lines are drawn to represent population numbers, you’re whining because texans reject progressive politicians

      • getoffmylawn

        Gerrymandering is a myth? Please explain then, why Democrats got MORE votes, yet Repubs control the House of Reps. Don’t bust a gut, now.

        • 1bimbo

          what are you talking about, there are no districts where the democrat got the most votes and the republican was sent to washington as the representative

          • getoffmylawn

            Are you stupid? Or are you that ignorant? In in 2012, Dems got 2 million more votes, but the Repubs won a 33 seat majority. The only way that happens is through gerrymandering. Texas is one of the worst offenders. Even Greg Abbott admitted that when he defended Texas gerrymandering in federal court.