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Bringing in the Feds Austin The Texas Legislature is considering a number of bills to reform the state’s voting procedures. At first blush the bills seem somewhat progressive. That’s before you see the federal legislation the state measures are trying to side-step. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Houston has been working for months to bring Texas under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. An_ amendment to the act was recently approved by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee over the strong objections of Gov. Dolph Briscoe’s secretary of state, Mark White. White told the committee that what minor problems Texas has with discrimination at the polls, Texas can handle alone. But Houston Comptroller Leonel Castillo and other minority spokesmen maintained that extending the Voting Rights Act to Texas could have a profound and positive effect on the state’s politics. THE JUDICIARY Committee approved extending the act for another 10 years. As originally passed in 1965, the bill was designed to protect black folks’ rights at the polls in the Deep South. Federal enforcement measures were triggered by a state’s or political subdivision’s use of a literacy test as a qualification for voting. \(Texas didn’t have a literacy test per se, but lawyers for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund EMALDEF] believe that English-only elections in areas where many citizens speak another tongue could be interpreted as a “test or device” under the Voting The Judiciary Committee voted to bring percent of the eligible voters actually voted the jurisdiction printed ballots only in the English language when more than 5 percent of the eligible voters are of a language minority. This would include persons of Spanish heritage, Asian-Americans; Alaskan natives, and American Indians. The law allows federal monitors to oversee elections in the covered state, county, or precinct. And it requires that the state get permission from the U.S. attorney general or a District of Columbia federal judge before changing any election law or procedure. Although the “trigger” in Texas would be the Mexican-American population figures, jurisdiction would extend to election abuses directed against brown, black, or white citizens. As one might suspect, support for this federal legislation comes mainly from white liberals and the minorities. “I know first-hand the difficulty minorities have in participating in the political process as equals,” says Representative Jordan, the state’s first black Congressional delegate. “The same discriminatory practices which moved the Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965 are practiced in Texas today,” she says. State Comptroller Bob Bullock, who has served as secretary of state, Texas’ chief election official, believes that the federal law “could reduce the likelihood of intimidation” at the polls. Governor Briscoe and Secretary of State White do not want to see federal monitors at Texas elections. White recently told a Judiciary subcommittee in Washington, “Insofar as Texas has a problem with U.S. Mexican-American votersand I want to emphasize that its problems are minimalTexas stands ready to do something about them.” White said a 1974 survey of voter registration records in his office “indicates that there is a slight but indistinguishable difference in voter registration.” In the counties with less than 5 percent Spanish-surnamed, 79 percent of the voting age population registered, as compared with counties with more than 50 percent Spanish-surnamed where 72 percent of the voting age population is registered. Similarly, he said, in the counties with less than 5 percent Spanish-surnamed, 23.18 percent of the voting age population actually voted. In counties with more than 50 percent Spanish-surnamed, 22.73 percent voted. “These figures speak for themselves,” White said. “Regrettably, Texans without regard for race, color, creed, or national origin are uniformly failing to exercise their right to vote.” Low voter turnout probably has something to do with the state’s past history of making it difficult for citizens to vote. Federal courts have often had to intervene to enforce the U.S. Constitution here. Blacks were prohibited by law from participating in the Democratic primary until 1926, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they must be allowed to vote. Then there was the poll tax, requiring people to pay for the privilege to vote, until the federal court nixed that in 1966. So the Legislature opted for annual voter registration, which the courts also ruled Rep. Jordan out of order. Time and time again, the Texas Legislature has been taken to court for drafting discriminatory redistricting bills. Legislators have been trying and failing to draw a constitutional legislative redistricting bill since 1971. All that’s left to work out is single-member districts for the nine remaining counties with multi-member districts. That would seem simple enough, but the House recently passed a redistricting bill, 115 to 31, that may well, once again, be rejected by the courts. The scheme for single-member districts in Jefferson County is especially blatant. Instead of putting the county’s heavy concentration of blacks into one district so that they could elect a black representative, the House divided the blacks among three districts. Rep. Ben Reyes of Houston claimed the plan was drawn for the benefit of the incumbents, Taylor Jones May 23, 19 75 5