Not So Fast, Texas: DOJ Backs Effort to Still Oversee Texas’ Voting Law Changes

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Update: In a private meeting among civil rights leaders on Monday, President Barack Obama pledged his support to protect minority voters, and San Antonio state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer had a seat at the table. The only Texan in attendance, Martinez Fischer joined members of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the NAACP and others at the White House for a discussion about a national strategy to defend voting laws.

“President Obama and the Attorney General’s commitment to voting rights lets me know they are unfazed by Shelby,” said Martinez Fischer. “And while they are disappointed [in it] there are other meaningful tools in the voting rights toolbox to use until Congress has an opportunity to engage in this subject and pass a new set of formula criteria under Section 4.”

A Congressional action plan, community outreach and collaboration on existing litigation were among the ideas. Chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the plaintiffs in the federal suit against Texas redistricting maps, the Democratic lawmaker said Texas was referenced several times in the conversation, including by the president.

“I think folks have recognized that either by fact or by mere coincidence in timing that the Texas case is probably going to be one of the very first cases that will seriously challenge the remnants of the Voting Rights Act post-Shelby,” said Martinez.

“It’s significant beyond just San Antonio and the Texas Legislature, it’s much more important than that now. In my view, it’s now become the test case for what is life after Shelby County like in voting rights– I think it will have national significance.” -MT 

While a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling gutted a key provision in the Voting Rights Act, enabling eight Southern states, including Texas, to evade long-enforced federal government oversight when it comes to redrawing election boundaries, this week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Texas should continue to seek permission from the feds when changing voting laws.

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Attorney General Eric Holder is backing efforts to check Texas when it comes to changing voting laws. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Justice

The SCOTUS decision made obsolete the formula to determine which areas need preclearance, removing protections to maintain fair elections and setting minorities and low-income residents behind even further in the democratic process, as the Current recently explored.

Now, the check from the feds–meant to ensure equal representation in states with an entrenched history of racism–is being called back by the Department of Justice and a coalition of minority and civil rights groups.

The VRA decision was considered a, “serious blow for the millions of minority communities whose voting rights are still being targeted,” League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) National President Margaret Moran said at the time. It was also a blow to a victory for minorities last year– in 2012, a D.C. court ruled Texas Republican-drawn maps intentionally discriminated against minority voters. In the more than 150-page opinion, Judge Thomas Griffith wrote, “Anglo district boundaries were redrawn to include particular country clubs and, in one case, the school belonging to the incumbent’s grandchildren.” Texas, it ruled, must show, “its redistricting plans have neither the effect nor the purpose of abridging minority voting rights.”

The Shelby v Holder SCOTUS ruling essentially overturned the D.C. opinion, arguing Section 4 of the VRA as “unconstitutional.” Because the present-day climate is devoid of rampant discrimination, the necessity for preclearance is outdated, the Supreme Court found. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote of the provision, “[

] Congress did not use that record to fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

But Texas officials are now being compelled to answer to the feds once again. This week, Holder validated a motion from minority rights organizations asking for a panel of three federal judges in San Antonio to place the state under preclearance for another 10 years, meaning they would be forced to continue to seek DOJ approval when changing voting maps and election laws.

“Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder — as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized — we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices,” said Holder in a speech delivered Thursday before the National Urban League.

“This is the Department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last.”

LULAC, a plaintiff in the suit recognized by the Attorney General, is depending on Section 3 of the VRA, which grants courts scrutiny over states where findings of discrimination are recent, such as in Texas. In essence, the “bail-in” provision could still subject the state to federal preclearance.

“We are very happy the U.S. jumped in, it means a lot to have them behind us,” Luis Vera, LULAC general counsel in San Antonio, told the Current. “I do think they should have jumped in earlier and we don’t necessarily agree on everything, but it does give us credence and more weight to what we are doing.”

“In the end, our final goals are the same, we want fair and non-discriminatory maps.”

While Gov. Rick Perry and the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature scrapped the 2011 maps, passing updated versions during the special session, LULAC and other groups contend those redistricting maps don’t go far enough in safeguarding the Latino vote. Vera says the 2012 maps were meant as a quick fix before a larger remedy could take effect– they were merely interim maps designed to correct only the most egregious attempts at racial discrimination.

Following the DOJ’s call, Perry attacked the Obama Administration for “demonstrating utter contempt” for the “country’s system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution.” And Attorney General Greg Abbott, who just last week announced his bid for governor, echoed similar sentiments, saying the move by the feds is an “affront” to the recent SCOTUS decision and “hostile” to the Constitution.

Meanwhile, San Antonio Rep. Joaquin Castro is praising the DOJ intervention, “I applaud the Department of Justice’s proactive actions to stop the enactment of laws that have already been determined to be discriminatory in Texas,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Texas Legislature has put Texas in a place where we need oversight for clear attacks on voter’s rights. We must continue to protect the basic right to choose our elected officials guaranteed by our American Constitution.”

As of now, no trial date has been set for the San Antonio federal case.

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