Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Voting Rights Act
“The first thing the governor of Iowa asked me,” Phillip Ruiz, state president of the Tejano Democrats, told his group over brunch at Tito’s last Saturday, “Was, ‘What do I call you? Hispanics? Latinos? Mexican-Americans? What do you want to be called?’”
Thirty Texans — Black, white, Asian, but mainly of the ethnic group in question, sat in the sunlit restaurant on South Alamo, waiting for their crisp-suited president to deliver his punchline.
And the pushcart filled with racial labels was uproariously upturned, and Democratic governor Tom Vilsack was razzed, when Ruiz said his people wanted to be called ... “Majority.”
That could happen in Congressional District 23, which includes parts of San Antonio, if a District Court re-engineers it by August 2 as the U.S. Supreme Court commanded in last month’s LULAC v. Perry. Though their ruling upheld the wildly partisan 2003 Texas redistricting, the high court noted that Hispanic voters had mysteriously disappeared from Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla’s district (actually, the court opinion said “Latino voters,” but, since they shrunk to a voting-age population of 46 percent after 2003 from 57.5 percent prior to the mapmaking, and were replaced, the court said, with Anglo voters likely to vote GOP, the court could have referred to the Hispanics within Bonilla’s district as ... “Minority.”).
Laws: The cause of, and solution to, all of Texas’s problems. Remember the poll tax? A legislative cover-charge policy of “one man, one vote, one buck seventy-five,” adopted in Texas in 1902 and paid annually until 1966, when a Supreme Court led by Earl “Superchief” Warren finally struck it down with great vengeance and furious anger for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Now I realize that you neither know all the 10 Commandments, the first 10 constitutional amendments (aka the Rockin’ Bill of Rights, wooh!), nor any of those other amendments, of which there are 27, by heart; but suffice it to say the poll tax helped keep such a whites-only, vise-grip hold over the electoral process, suppressing Southern Black voter participation especially, that an entire amendment had to be dedicated just to barring poll taxes in national elections. (Do you know which amendment did that? Take 27 guesses.)
Another of slavery’s heirlooms that made it into Texas law in 1923 was the white primary, which explicitly excluded Blacks from state Democrats’ country-club clambakes. And primaries.
These primaries were the premiere candidate-selection processes (as crucial as the Iowa presidential caucus is today), because way back then, the Democrats comfortably sipped sweet tea in rocking chairs, kept the GOP tied to the porch, and dominated state politics. After more than 20 years of white primaries, Thurgood Marshall argued Smith v. Allwright before the big court he would later join, where it was determined that Texas’s law violated the Fifteenth Amendment (which protects against racial discrimination in voting, you constitutional-trivia nuts). The 1944 ruling set the stage for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
You know, in some ways, the Supreme Court’s decision last month in LULAC was like a message in a bottle, a reminder of the prescient systems put in place in the 1960s. Take for instance Reynolds v. Sims, one of the most enduring treasures to come out of 1964, along with the Civil Rights Act of that year, the Beatles, and the British Invasion (please can we send the Rolling Stones back now?), and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
Reynolds was Superchief Warren’s gift to a representative democracy. The landmark ruling said that state legislatures have an obligation to create equal populations within city-council districts, school districts, county-commissioner precincts, and state and congressional districts. The rallying cry for this apportionment effort is “one person, one vote” — before the ruling, a population of 13,500 could be allocated two seats in the Alabama House, while one with a population of 314,000 was given only three seats. That’s one reason lawmakers depend on the census’s 10-year head-count. Using outmoded data when attempting a mid-decade redistricting invites flies into the ointment, said Lucas Powe, a UT constitutional-law professor, who paid $1,350 to submit a 2005 amicus brief in a case before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas to challenge the validity of the 2003 Texas congressional districts. From 2000 to 2003, Powe argued, the state gained 1.2 million new residents. The District Court was unmoved.
Judicial officials, in general, did not take seriously concerns that the Texas map was discriminatory, either, even though at one point, the Washington Post reported last year, a Justice Department staff memo said the D.O.J. shouldn’t pre-clear the 2003 redistricting plan because it was discriminatory in some districts. A senior political appointee overruled the recommendation, the Post said. (As part of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, Texas had to submit their 2003 plans to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance, a federal review that applies to states with a history of discriminatory elections (Section 5 expired last year, and the reauthorization holdup is GOP-driven, but the Voting Rights Act is a permanent law).
So here we are, three years later, under a Roberts Supreme Court that will not address gerrymandering, but that will let another feature of the Voting Rights Act, Section 2, the racial-vote-dilution law, pick up the slack. Now all eyes are watching District 23.
“I really can’t even speculate `on what will happen`,” said Texas Senator Leticia Van De Putte, who led Democrats out of the state to protest the 2003 map. “Have you ever had something go wrong with your stomach and your head hurts and your eyes are blurred and your feet hurt?” (Didn’t you know? Van De Putte is a pharmacist by trade.)
“I don’t know how to fix one part of the body without affecting the others,” Van de Putte said. “You can’t change 23 without looking at 25. If you redraw 23, you would have to redo a whole lot more. And Latino voters could be disenfranchised in a whole new way.”
Lone Star-political mapmaking has led to: a.) years of civil litigation, and b.) criminal charges against the corrupt Republican “cartographer” Tom DeLay, who introduced the corrosive effects of corporate money into 2002 Texas races, in violation of state campaign finance laws, and c.) Supreme Court edicts about racial discrimination (what the high court calls “Latino vote dilution”), as well as d.) widespread panic that the Supreme’s decision will encourage widespread mid-census redistricting.
While all this is happening, just three states up I-35 is Iowa — the fairest redistricting system in the land.
Following the 2000 Census, Iowa was one of the first states to meet its legislative and congressional-redistricting deadlines, the Voting and Democracy Research Center reports. Meanwhile, on the other side of the redistricting world, the Texas lege was deadlocked, the courts had to intervene and make a map in time for the 2002 election, and after that great GOP showing (see: violation of campaign-finance laws, above), a very partisan and very selfish redistricting plan was drawn, says Steve Bickerstaff, another UT law-school professor and author of the upcoming Lines in the Sand, a book about the 2003 mapmaking.
Bickerstaff has joined a chorus of law-watchers wearing terra-cotta “Tragedy” masks and moaning about Texas redistricting being wasteful (the state spent about $8 million on special sessions in 2003 alone) and drawn out (Bickerstaff’s book, which has been delayed for the outcome of legal challenges to the 2003 plan, will probably hold until after a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas presents an altered map on August 2 — Supreme Court orders.
With all the expected developments, and in an anything-can-happen election year, Bickerstaff’s wife says he’ll have to sit on his hands like Truman Capote, who couldn’t write the last chapter of In Cold Blood until his killer-protagonists were executed.
But back to Iowa, and what makes us so different. It probably starts with state mottos. Texas’s is “Friendship,” which, if the “cartographer’s” experience can be a guide, may sometimes be bartered in exchange for bribes, special deals, and legislative votes (see: Tom DeLay, House reign of error, 1984-2006).
Then there’s Iowa’s resolute motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” Maybe this little mantra is what the Hawkeyes had in mind when they set up an independent commission in 1980 to draw its districts, giving their legislature and governor the power merely to approve or reject a plan. Iowans have shown us what happens when map pencils are given to a nonpartisan entity. They “carve up the state’s political maps by the numbers, not according to instructions from party headquarters,” says the New York Times.
And what happens when you give map pencils to the kids at the Texas GOP? They get to manipulate geography unchecked, it would seem from the June 28 LULAC decision. But before you declare everything lost, give it up for the restraining powers of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2.
Lastly, Walter Herbeck, 68, one of the attendees at that Tejano Democrat meeting (and who has two homes within district 23 and identifies himself as an old Chicano) wants you to keep this in mind: If the Democrats do well this November, a mid-census remapping could allow yet another reorganization of power.
“It’s going to be a good thing if we get in,” he said. “Then it will be open House.”