Updated: September 19, 2011, 4:27PM
The Justice Department said Monday that Texas’ state House and congressional redistricting plans didn’t comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), indicating they thought the maps approved by Gov. Rick Perry (R) gave too little voting power to the growing Latino population in the state.
Officials with DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said the proposed redistricting plan for the State Board of Education (SBOE) and the state Senate complied with the Voting Rights Act, but indicated they had concerns with the state House plan and the plan for congressional redistricting.
The federal government “[denied] that the proposed Congressional plan, as compared with the benchmark, maintains or increases the ability of minority voters to elect their candidate of choice in each district protected by Section 5,” DOJ lawyers write in a filing. “Defendants deny that the proposed Congressional plan complies with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”
Texas is picking up four new seats in the House of Representatives next year because of its expanding Latino population. Their population went up over 90 percent in the period between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. But civil rights groups have taken issue with the redistricting process, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, because they say it puts Latino voters at a disadvantage.
Texas Republicans were certainly worried about the feds raising concerns that the redistricting plan didn’t do enough to strengthen the voting power of Latino residents of the state, according to emails they sent to one another.
A special three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. will ultimately decide whether the redistricting plan for the state violates the VRA. That’s because the state of Texas chose to skip the cheaper pre-clearance process, which would have put the decision in the hands of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A hearing is set for Wednesday.
And DOJ’s position on the SBOE and state Senate redistricting plan still doesn’t grant Texas preclearance because the state chose to go through the court; it merely lays out the Justice Department’s position in the ongoing litigation. Regardless of DOJ’s position, the court can still potentially find that the SBOE and state Senate maps aren’t in compliance with the VRA.
DOJ veteran and redistricting expert J. Gerald Hebert saw the Justice Department’s filing as a “good sign” for the Civil Rights Division, which had undergone politicization during the Bush administration.
“I think DOJ concluded like many of us have who looked at this that the congressional map and the house map don’t meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act,” Hebert told TPM.
“I mean in 2003 when Tom DeLay did the redistricting, the professional staff recommended that the plan be denied preclearance, but they were overruled,” Hebert said. “This document reads like it’s a professional staff answer, professional staff looked at this and made their determination.”
“I think it’s a good sign that voting rights is back in the hands of people who are going to make a judgement about the facts and the law,” Hebert continued.
Ahead of the decision, some were anticipating the Justice Department’s decision as an indication of how hard the Obama administration would fight for Latino voters, especially in a proxy battle with a potential 2012 rival.
“It’s a critical step in figuring where we end up in redistricting, especially Congressional redistricting,” Michael Li, a Democratic election attorney in Dallas, told Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz. “It’s the first time Democrats have controlled the Justice Department [during this process] in 40 years, since the Voting Rights Act was enacted. Everyone has been wondering how aggressive the Justice Department is going to be.”
The Justice Department is separately deciding whether a voter ID law signed by Perry violates the Voting Rights Act.
Read the Justice Department’s court filing in the Texas redistricting case here.
[Ed. note: this story has been updated.]
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