Texas Can Use Interim Districts in November Election

Texas will use interim voter maps drafted by three federal judges in San Antonio for the November election, delaying a redistricting fight between voting rights activists and the state’s Republican leaders.

The three-judge panel ruled yesterday that interim voter maps it created for use in Texas’s primary elections in May after voting rights groups challenged state-drawn districts as biased against minorities would remain in place for November.

Yesterday’s decision was in response to an Aug. 28 ruling by a federal court in Washington that determined voter boundaries created by Texas’s Republican-controlled legislature intentionally discriminated against Hispanics and blacks.

Some minority rights groups urged the judges to delay the election and redraw the maps, saying the interim maps embodied much of the same discrimination rejected by the Washington court.

“Everything will remain the same,” U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia said during yesterday’s hearing.

The ruling in Washington came in a separate lawsuit through which Texas sought federal approval of its new maps under the Voting Rights Act, a step required of all states with a history of voting rights violations. The state said in a court filing earlier yesterday that it would appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Voting Access

Courtroom fights over voting access are intensifying throughout the country as the election approaches. Voter cases are under way in swing states, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns see a possibility of victory.

A federal judge in Ohio yesterday threw out a Republican-backed law that cut three days of early voting for most of the state’s citizens, handing a victory to President Barack Obama’s campaign organization. U.S. District Judge Peter Economus in Columbus ruled that Ohio can’t give members of the military and citizens living abroad three days more than other voters to cast ballots. He ordered the previous schedule restored that allowed anyone to vote until the day before an election.

“This court finds that plaintiffs have a constitutionally protected right to participate in the 2012 election -- and all elections -- on an equal basis with all Ohio voters,” Economus said, ruling on a lawsuit brought by Obama for America.

“The people of Ohio had overwhelmingly expressed their desire to preserve the early voting system which has been so successful in recent years,” Aaron Pickrell, a senior adviser with Obama for America-Ohio, said in a statement.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, said he will file an appeal next week.

‘We Disagree’

“We disagree with the ruling,” DeWine said yesterday. “We have always allowed distinction for military voters, and to say this violates equal protection is wrong.”

Ohio holds 18 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win a presidential race and no Republican has captured the White House without a victory there. In 2008, Obama carried the state with 51.5 percent of the vote.

In states that have tightened election procedures, Republican-controlled legislatures said it was necessary to prevent fraud and help elections run smoothly. Democrats say the steps were aimed at limiting votes for Obama and helping Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Florida Voting

A three-judge federal panel in Washington on Aug. 17 rejected an attempt to apply a state law curtailing early voting days and poll hours in five counties subject to the Voting Rights Act. Florida, the fourth-most populous U.S. state, failed to show that the changes wouldn’t hurt minority voting, the court said.

On Aug. 29, a federal judge in Florida said he will permanently block new regulations of voter-registration drives he previously found unconstitutional. The rules, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and approved by Republican Governor Rick Scott, were “harsh and impractical,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said.

A Pennsylvania judge on Aug. 15 upheld that state’s law requiring voters to show identification to vote. That ruling is being appealed.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen on Aug. 21 said he was petitioning his state’s Supreme Court to hear his appeal of two lower-court rulings striking down a voter-identification requirement there.

Violations History

Texas is one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations that under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act need approval to change election procedures either from the Justice Department or a special panel composed of district and circuit court judges in Washington.

The legislature redrew electoral maps after the state grew enough to gain four seats in Congress, adding almost 4.3 million residents since 2000, according to the 2010 census.

Texas sued the administration of President Barack Obama in July 2011 seeking so called pre-clearance for the plan and a two-week bench trial was held in Washington in January.

The U.S. objected to two proposed congressional districts and five state assembly districts. Several minority groups objected to an additional state senate district.

Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott yesterday asked the San Antonio court to stick with the interim maps for the November election.

“There is no need to change the maps again,” Matthew Frederick, an assistant attorney general, said during the hearing. “They are legal and fair.”

‘Illegitimate’ Districts

Luis Roberto Vera Jr., general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, who opposed use of the interim maps, said in an interview that the Texas legislature will have an opportunity to redraw new maps when it reconvenes in January.

Vera said that if new maps are drawn and approved, Texas can hold special elections in May or June for whichever “illegitimate” districts held elections based on the interim maps.

Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Texas Legislature’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus, called yesterday’s decision “reasonable” given the court and parties need time to fashion boundaries that address the violations. His group opposed the legislature maps in lawsuits filed in San Antonio and Washington.

‘Accurate First’

“Sometime getting things done quickly and getting it right are in conflict,” Fischer said in an interview. “We prefer to be accurate first and expedient second.”

In their Aug 28 ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith and District Judges Beryl Howell and Rosemary Collyer said the state’s plans contained evidence of discrimination.

Griffith and Collyer were appointed to the court by President George W. Bush. Howell was appointed by Obama.

In Congressional District 23, or CD 23, a sprawling district stretching from San Antonio to El Paso in far western Texas, the judges said Texas tried to make the district more Republican without changing its Hispanic population levels. The evidence showed that more than 600,000 people were moved into or out of the district to address overpopulation of 149,000, according to the ruling.

“The map drawers consciously replaced many of the district’s active Hispanic voters with low-turnout Hispanic voters in an effort to strengthen the voting power of CD 23’s Anglo citizens,” Griffith said in the opinion. “In other words, they sought to reduce Hispanic voters’ ability to elect without making it look like anything in CD 23 had changed.”

Population Growth

Since minorities accounted for 89 percent of the state’s population growth, Texas was required to draw at least one of the new congressional districts in a way that favored minority candidates, the Justice Department argued.

“We have concluded that Texas’s failure to draw a new minority district does in fact make the enacted plan retrogressive,” Griffith said.

The judges found that the congressional plans were made with discriminatory purpose, though they said there’s no direct evidence of it. During the past four decades, Texas has “found itself in court” during every redistricting cycle and has lost every time, the judges added.

Griffith, in the opinion, said that the new voter maps carved so-called economic engines out of black districts in Houston and Dallas. The Astrodome, the Medical Center, a rail line and Houston Baptist University were all removed from the district of U.S. Representative Al Green, a Democrat, as was his district office.

No Surgery

“No surgery was performed on the districts of Anglo incumbents,” Griffith said. “In fact, every Anglo member of Congress retained his or her district office. Anglo boundaries were redrawn to include particular country clubs and, in one case, the school belonging to the incumbent’s grandchildren.”

The case is Perez v. Perry, 5:11-cv-00360, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas (San Antonio). The Washington case is Texas v. U.S., 11-cv-01303, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington). The Ohio case is Obama for America v. Husted, 12-cv-00636, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio (Columbus).

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