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Voting Rights Act

The case for redrawing Constable/JP precincts

A Twitter thread of interest:

Note that he means the Justice of the Peace courts. Current maps for those precincts are here. Note that the Constable and Justice of the Peace precincts are the same. Note also how large geographically precincts 4 and 5 are. I’m sure they were quite empty in the 70s, but that was a long time ago. That’s one of the main theses in the accompanying article, which focuses on population growth and caseloads, and how they affect people facing evictions, which are handled by the JP courts.

Every Monday morning, Judge Israel Garcia, Jr., who serves as Harris County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5, stares down a punishing docket of eviction, debt collection, and traffic cases for the week. His courtroom has a line out the door of parents and children, desperate to resolve a dispute with their landlord or settle a longstanding debt. But the law can be unfriendly to these defendants, and Judge Garcia must know that relief will never come.

All Justice of the Peace Courts in Harris County deal with large caseloads, but the number of cases in Precinct 5 is seemingly endless. If you visit our Harris County Evictions Dashboard, you’ll see how imbalanced the caseload really is – there are 10 times as many cases in Precinct 5 compared to Precinct 6.

What’s going on here? Do renters in Precinct 5 have a much higher risk of eviction than renters in other areas? Are its residents that much more likely to fall behind on their credit card payments or speed through a school zone? No. The reason why Precinct 5 has more cases is because it has more people –  a lot more people. And it has more people because Harris County hasn’t redrawn the boundaries of JP courts since 1973.

For this blog post, I explore just how lopsided the caseloads in Harris County’s JP Courts have become due to a lack of redistricting over the past 50 years. I also show the results from a simulation I ran of 1,000 new maps for the courts that account for population change. Every single one is better than what we have today.

I discussed the political case for redistricting the Constables in an earlier post. That’s a separate matter from what David McClendon is advocating. The two goals, if they are indeed goals for Commissioners Court, would be in some tension here. My first thought is whether McClendon took the Voting Rights Act into account in this exercise, because Precinct 6 – one of two precinct with Hispanic Constables and (with the election of Dolores Lozano in Precinct 2) all Hispanic JPs – would be first in line to be made larger. Precinct 2, the other of those two precincts, is right next to it. Precincts 3 and 7 have Black Constables and JPs. Any potential redrawing of these precincts needs to ensure that Black and Hispanic voters aren’t losing representation.

The Constables are currently five Dems and three Republicans, with Precincts 4 and 8 being all-GOP, while Precinct 5 has one JP from each party following Israel Garcia’s win in 2020. As a practical political matter, Commissioners Court is not going to draw a new set of maps that will make it harder for Democrats to win. Again, as far as I can tell, McClendon didn’t take that into account.

And that’s fine. That wasn’t his idea, and his goal was to even out the caseloads to enable a better process and hopefully better outcomes for tenants facing eviction. The good news here is that McClendon ran a thousand maps, each of which were better than the existing one for his purposes. That strongly suggests to me that the political purpose of not making it harder for Dems to get elected – while also at the least not making it easier for a few specific Constables to get re-elected – can be achieved at the same time as making the courts function better for everyone. Maybe there’s not an optimal solution for each in the same map, but surely improvements can be made. I would absolutely advocate for Commissioners Court to take a long look at this.

Of course the redistricting lawsuit trial will be delayed

All we ever get is delays.

The legal fight over the shape of Texas political representation for the next decade won’t be decided until next year after a federal panel agreed Tuesday to delay a trial over new political maps.

The federal three-judge panel hearing the case pushed the start of the trial, which was originally scheduled for Sept. 28, following a flurry of disputes over discovery that left both the state and the various plaintiff groups questioning whether they’d have enough time to prepare to make their cases in a federal court in El Paso.

The court said it would announce a new trial at a later time.

The maps passed by the Legislature in 2021 have already gone into effect and are being used for the first time in this year’s elections, but the litigation could decide whether those maps need to be changed to ensure that voters of color have a fair say in choosing their representatives in elections for years to come.

The state faces a broad catalog of challenges to its four political maps, including its congressional and statehouse maps, that could affect a litany of districts. The legal claims, stemming from nearly a dozen consolidated lawsuits, include allegations of intentional discrimination, vote dilution and racial gerrymandering. The Republican-drawn maps largely serve to bolster the party’s dominance, giving white voters greater control of political districts throughout the state.

At issue in the delay were ongoing fights to compel Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general’s office and other Republican elected officials to turn over thousands of documents that the state has been fighting to keep concealed. With less than a month until the scheduled start of the trial, the state and the plaintiffs groups were also jostling over various depositions in which state lawmakers relied on asserting legislative privilege to avoid divulging information on how the maps were drafted.

Redistricting cases are complex, with plaintiffs carrying the burden of proving wrongdoing by the state. The release of the disputed documents, the plaintiffs argued, could reveal new facts that could require additional depositions.

“Were the September 28 trial setting to hold, the Court could rule in advance of the upcoming legislative session. This would have been a clear benefit to all parties. But a ruling on only partial evidence does justice for none,” some of the plaintiffs wrote in a joint advisory filed with the court last week.

But the delay is not without risk.

This is the joint lawsuit with multiple plaintiffs; the Justice Department lawsuit, which survived a motion to dismiss in June, is being heard separately. The plaintiffs in this lawsuit scored a couple of wins recently relating to documents that must be disclosed to them. Those rulings obviously weren’t the end of the dispute, and so we have delays. The risk mentioned is that a final ruling would not be made in time for the Lege to make any required adjustments to the maps for the 2024 election. Remember, unless the primaries get moved back, which would affect the Presidential races, we need maps by October or so, to accommodate filing season and any updates that county election officials need to make. That’s not a lot of time. We’ll see when the new trial date is scheduled, but keep that time frame in mind. Unless we want to wait until 2026 – which, as we know from previous decades’ experience, is hardly out of the norm – the clock is very much ticking.

Most of the lawsuit against the voter suppression law survives a motion to dismiss

Some good news.

In a limited order this week, a federal judge threw out some civil rights and discrimination claims brought as part of a complex and ongoing legal dispute over strict new voting rules in Texas.

The lawsuit filed last year alleges that the rules violate the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting voter assistance and making it easier for “partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters and poll workers.”

[…]

In his order on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez, a George W. Bush appointee, did not provide a clear win to either side in the protracted legal fight.

On one hand, Rodriguez did agree with Texas officials that civil rights groups had in some cases failed to a state a claim, meaning they could not adequately show a violation of federal law or a potential injury to voters. He dismissed a handful of claims brought by the civil rights groups, which include the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Workers Defense Action Fund.

On the other hand, Rodriguez’s order was hardly kind to Texas officials. Over the course of 61 pages, he detailed not only why civil rights groups had standing to sue, but also how they’d “clearly” established that SB1 could have discriminatory effects on voting rights.

The judge waved off efforts by Texas officials to have more or all of the lawsuit dismissed — including the state’s unusual argument that civil rights groups shouldn’t be able to sue because “the organizations themselves do not have a disability.”

“It is well settled,” Rodriguez wrote, “that an organization may sue as the representative of its members.”

While past filings in this lawsuit have largely hinged on nuances of civil rights law, Tuesday’s order was interesting because it detailed the lived experiences of disabled voters in Texas.

The civil plaintiffs presented examples from at least three voters — all members of the disability voting-rights group REV UP — whom they said could be harmed by Texas’ new voting law.

These examples were “non-exhaustive,” plaintiffs said, and represented just some of the disabled Texans who could face voting difficulties if SB 1 is allowed to stand.

See here for the background. There were multiple lawsuits filed, with the Justice Department getting involved later on. This is the San Antonio lawsuit from that first blog post. I assume that most if not all of these cases have been combined but it’s hard for me to say from the information I have easily available. Democracy Docket has some information on this one, and they provide a PDF that combines multiple orders from Judge Rodriguez; the Courthouse News story only has one of them, which threw me for a minute as I was trying to verify that I was referring to the correct case. This stuff is complicated, y’all.

Anyway. That story goes into two of those examples, and you should read about them, they’re quite compelling. I’m never quite sure if the Republicans who pass these voter suppression bills legitimately don’t care that people such as these plaintiffs won’t be able to vote as a result, or if they just can’t be bothered to hear their stories while the bills are in progress, lest they have some feelings of guilt or remorse, if those are possible for them. The end result is the same, I just want to know how to calibrate my contempt. Anyway, this is in addition to the other voter suppression bill that was struck down – we are apparently at a point where a bunch of these are getting some action, which is always exciting. As usual, nothing is safe until the Fifth Circuit is done with it, and we know what that usually means. So celebrate responsibly, we may be mourning later on.

Redistricting plaintiffs get a win on discovery

Every little bit helps.

A federal judge on Monday issued a wide-ranging discovery order requiring Texas state lawmakers to turn over documents related to the state’s congressional redistricting plans.

The underlying lawsuit, filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens and several other civil rights groups, is part of a broad effort to correct what critics say is voter intimidation and discrimination in Texas heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

[…]

Like the separate lawsuit over Texas election laws, this redistricting case has continued to swell since its initial filing, with six other lawsuits consolidated into the legal fight. Days after the case was filed, the Fifth Circuit appointed a three-judge panel to oversee the increasingly complex case.

In November, the Justice Department also joined those suing state officials. It was doing so, the federal government said, because Texas redistricting plans had raised “important questions” about possible violations of the Voting Rights Act.

Since then, the case has largely hinged on issues of discovery. Texas lawmakers have battled against subpoenas, arguing that much of their work on redistricting was privileged information. They filed hundreds of pages of court documents detailing information they do not think they should have to turn over, including what they’ve described as “confidential communications” reflecting “thoughts, opinions and mental impressions.”

The Department of Justice, meanwhile, has continued its efforts to enforce subpoenas. The feds argue Texas officials have “inappropriately” claimed attorney-client privilege, refused to turn over documents from decades ago and “advanced an overbroad conception” of legislative privilege that has withheld “even communications with members of the public.” As a result, they say, lawmakers have disclosed “merely one-third” of the documents requested in subpoenas.

In his order on Monday, U.S. District Court Judge David Guaderrama, an Obama appointee, agreed with arguments from the DOJ and the civil rights groups. He found that Texas lawmakers were using overly broad theories of legislative privilege and could not “cloak conversations with executive-branch officials, lobbyists, and other interested outsiders.”

Guaderrama ruled the factors in this case weighed in favor of granting discovery requests. He cited the “seriousness of the litigation and the issues involved,” including allegations of lawbreaking and “intentional discrimination” against minority voters.

While Texas lawmakers asserted attorney-client privilege, the judge ruled they could not simply decline to release any documents referencing legal analysis, including scheduling calendars and communications with outside firms involved in redistricting. These documents are not “categorically privileged,” he wrote.

In the end, Guaderrama ordered Texas lawmakers to turn over a wide array of documents relating to redistricting, including “talking points” defending the maps. For any documents that contained “bona fide legal advice” or “privileged material,” Guaderrama ordered lawmakers to produce redacted versions.

About two months ago, the plaintiffs scored a different win in that three Republican legislators who had tried to avoid having to sit for depositions failed to get a lower court ruling against them overturned. If this ruling stands – always a dicey proposal when the Fifth Circuit is involved – then what the plaintiffs will gain is a lot of insight into what the legislators and their staff and advisors were saying to each other at the time. The experience from previous rounds of redistricting litigation is that there will be some good stuff there for the plaintiffs. Which still might not matter in the end, since SCOTUS has made its preferences very clear, but as I said in that last post, you have to start somewhere. Link via Reform Austin.

A piece of the voter suppression law is blocked

Buckle up, this will take a bit of explanation.

Parts of a 2021 Texas voting law that cracked down on assistance for voters with limited English skills and voters with disabilities can no longer be enforced.

A federal judge in Texas issued a ruling last month striking down provisions in Texas’ new law, known as Senate Bill 1, that set limits on how people can help voters cast their ballots. State officials had until last week to appeal the ruling, but they declined. The office of the Texas attorney general has not responded to requests for comment.

Lisa Snead, a litigation attorney at Disability Rights Texas, said the court decision is a big win for voters with disabilities in the state.

“The provision of SB 1 limiting assistance … really limited what voters with disabilities could receive,” she said. “And it had a grave impact on voters who tried to vote in … elections in March and May.”

[…]

Among its provisions, SB 1 restricted assistance to only reading the ballot for a voter, marking the ballot for a voter, directing the voter to read the ballot and directing the voter to mark the ballot.

Groups including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund went to federal court and argued that the voter assistance parts of SB 1 directly violate a 2018 injunction that ruled that similar limitations in Texas’ election code at the time violated the federal Voting Rights Act. The court agreed and also directed the state to change its training for voting assistants.

In addition, the court barred Texas from including those restrictions in the language of an oath an assistor must swear to when helping voters. SB 1 requires people aiding voters to fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship with the voter and whether they are compensated. It also requires they recite an oath under the penalty of perjury stating they did not “pressure or coerce” the voter into choosing them for assistance.

Debbie Chen with Organization of Chinese Americans of Greater Houston, which was the plaintiff in the 2018 case, said in a statement earlier this month that SB 1 made assistors afraid to answer voters’ questions in the state’s primary elections.

“Asian American voters with limited English often need to ask questions to understand the ballot and the voting process,” Chen said. “This is especially true for people who provide them with assistance and must translate the English ballot and the whole process on the spot.”

This lawsuit was filed in Travis County in September; there was another lawsuit filed at the same time in Bexar County, but that is not a part of this case. I did not see any news stories about the injunction that had been granted, so this is the first update that I’m aware of. The story refers to a 2018 injunction granted from a 2016 lawsuit over similar issues – see here for more on the lawsuit. I had noted the appeal of that injunction, but it seems I lost track of the litigation after that. Sometimes these things don’t make the news, and sometimes they only make the news in places I don’t see.

Anyway. The allegation here is that the latest voter suppression bill contained language that directly violated the terms of the 2018 injunction – in some cases, SB1 more or less directly quoted things that the court had said were enjoined. Some great work by the staff there, fellas. I’m a little surprised the state didn’t bother appealing this to the Fifth Circuit, even though that 2018 injunction had been narrowly tailored to comply with their order remanding the case back so it could be more narrowly written. Maybe there are some things even the Fifth Circuit won’t do. In any event, while there are still many issues with SB1, at least this won’t be among them. Kudos to all for getting this done. The Chron has more.

Chron story on the proposed new City Council map

Remember, you heard it here first.

Houston’s proposed City Council maps for 2023 elections make only minor changes to district boundaries near Rice University, Freedmen’s Town and parts of downtown.

Overall, less than 3% of Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts under the proposal, which is designed to balance district populations based on 2020 Census data, while complying with city requirements and the Voting Rights Act, according to City Demographer Jerry Wood.

By law, none of the 11 districts should vary by more than 10 percent from the average district population of approximately 209,000 residents. This means that Houston’s three most populous districts – Districts C, D and G – will lose some of their lands. Meanwhile, Districts H, I and J will need to expand.

“Unlike redistricting for legislative districts, there’s a lot more identification with a neighborhood that the civic leaders have and also the relationship that they establish with their council members,” Wood said. “So the desire is to create as little disruption as possible.”

[…]

In recent months, the public has repeatedly requested the city to keep super neighborhoods together, Wood said, something that demographers did not have in mind when initially dividing up the population.

The proposal managed to move Braeburn, a super neighborhood on the southwest side, into a single district and bring together most of Eastex – Jensen, one in north Houston. But Wood said he was not able to unite Greater Heights in north central or South Belt on the southeast side.

“Sometimes there are requests that simply are impossible,” Wood said.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of legal challenges. For one, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the City Council.

The lawsuit hopes to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area. Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with LULAC, said his team is on track to file the lawsuit later this month.

“We anticipated that there would not be any major changes to the maps this time and that the city was not going to disrupt things too much,” Lira said. “It’s going to take a lawsuit in order to change the system.”

See here for my post on the new map, along with the schedule for public hearings, and here for my post about the promise of a lawsuit to ditch the At Large Council seats. Several cities have moved partly or fully away from At Large Council systems to all-district or hybrid systems in recent years, some with more of a fuss about it than others – Austin, Pasadena, Irving, Farmers Branch. It’s hard to say how litigation on this matter might go in this current climate, but on the other hand if the city lost in a federal district court it’s not clear to me that they’d pursue an appeal. This is an excellent place to get caught making dumb predictions, so I’ll stop myself before I go too far. I’ll wait and see what happens when LULAC files their complaint. In the meantime, attend one of those hearings if this interests you.

Two redistricting lawsuit updates

Legislators involved in the most recent redistricting effort can be made to sit for depositions.

The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to block the deposition of Texas lawmakers in redistricting suits.

Mum as to whether there were any dissents, the order from the justices keeps in place a lower court ruling that will force Republican lawmakers to appear for depositions in suits claiming that Texas’ redistricting plans are discriminatory. Per their custom, the justices also did not offer any explanation for their ruling.

The United States subpoenaed three Texas lawmakers at the beginning of the month to testify in a challenge to the state’s 2021 congressional and state House redistricting plans. The Department of Justice and voting rights groups claim the new maps violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against minority voters in West Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Representatives Ryan Guillen, Brooks Landgraf and John Lujan tried to limit their testimony to matters in the public record, but a federal judge denied their motion and their attempt to block the testimony altogether. Likewise the Fifth Circuit refused to enter a stay pending appeal that would block their testimony.

In their application to the high court, Texas lawmakers claim they have the privilege and immunity to avoid testifying in the suits.

“The legislators’ depositions will probe the very innerworkings of the legislative process, examining the legislators’ thoughts, impressions, and motivations for their legislative acts,” wrote Taylor A.R. Meehan, an attorney with Consovoy McCarthy representing the lawmakers.

He also warned that lawmakers would have to answer questions in full the “proverbial ‘cat is out of the bag.’ And the twin safeguards of legislative immunity and privilege — older than the country itself — are no safeguards at all.”

The Justice Department said the depositions were routine.

“Courts, including this Court, often rely on such testimony both in assessing the motive and justification for districting choices and in considering the ‘totality of circumstances’ relevant to minority voters’ electoral opportunities, as the VRA directs,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the government’s opposition brief.

The government notes that Lujan has a particularly weak claim to legislative privilege since he was not in the Legislature when the redistricting plans were passed.

“Representative John Lujan, does not have even an arguable claim of legislative privilege with respect to the challenged districting plans because he was not in the legislature when the plans were passed — a critical fact that applicants do not mention,” Prelogar wrote.

This is from the LULAC lawsuit, which is now consolidated with most of the other federal lawsuits. The order is from a couple of weeks ago, as the depositions were set to begin the week of May 24. SCOTUS just never took up the defendants’ motion, so they did not get an order to protect them from being deposed. This is not going to change the overall trajectory of the litigation, but it ought to lead to some interesting facts for the eventual hearings. Lujan as noted was not a legislator when the maps were passed in the special session, so who knows what he thinks he has to keep quiet about, while Guillen was still a Democrat when this was all happening. Should make for some fun questions, if nothing else.

The other federal lawsuit, which was not combined with the LULAC et al complaint, is the one filed by the Justice Department. That one survived a motion to dismiss:

A federal judge has ruled that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland can proceed with voting and civil rights claims against Texas over a state law passed last year to address purported voter fraud.

State officials had asked U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez to dismiss the case, arguing that federal officials did not have standing to sue them. They argued that local election officials — not state ones — were charged with implementing the new law.

The George W. Bush appointee disagreed in an order Tuesday, finding the U.S. attorney general has “broad constitutional power to protect the right to vote” and is “congressionally authorized” to go after voting rights violations.

The federal government had a “significant stake” in protecting “the general welfare of its citizenry,” Rodriguez wrote. He found the U.S. government had plausibly alleged that Texas law would “disenfranchise eligible Texas citizens who seek to exercise their vote,” including those with disabilities, limited knowledge of English and “members of the military deployed away from home.”

[…]

In November, the U.S. attorney general’s office intervened, expressing an interest the [LULAC et al consolidated] case and urging Rodriguez not to dismiss the claims. Voting lawsuits brought by private groups were necessary, the filing argued, due to the “limited federal resources available for Voting Rights Act enforcement” and because states with histories of voter restrictions no longer had to seek federal preclearance for voting changes following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

Later that month, the AG’s office also filed suit against the Lone Star State. In a strongly worded complaint, federal officials argued that Texas already had some of the “strictest [voting] limitations in the nation” and that SB1 would “impermissibly” restrict and disenfranchise voters.

Texas’s “history of official voting-related discrimination against its disfavored citizens is longstanding and well-documented,” the complaint said. “Federal intervention has been necessary to eliminate numerous devices intentionally used to restrict minority voting in Texas.”

This lengthy and complex legal battle, involving a variety of parties, led up to Tuesday’s order. Over the months, Texas officials have tried numerous avenues to dismiss the case.

Among other things, state officials zeroed in on the state’s new voter ID and mail-in ballot requirements. Because the state allows voters to “cure” their ballots, they argued, the law did not deny the right to vote.

Rodriguez rejected this argument and others, writing that a voter’s opportunity to cure their ballot “does not necessarily mean” that SB 1 did not violate the Civil Rights Act. The law does not allow state officials to “initially deny the right to vote…as long as they institute cure processes,” he wrote. Instead, it bars these actions altogether.

He also found that, while local elections officials may be in charge of implementing the law, SB 1 was in fact “traceable” to state officials, and therefore they could be sued. Since the law has so far been in effect for the state’s primary elections, the U.S. government had also alleged an injury, he found.

Rather than issuing an injunction preventing enforcement of parts of SB 1, Rodriguez’s order instead simply allows the U.S. government to continue with its lawsuit. It remains to be seen how the case will play out, including whether controversial aspects of SB 1 will remain in effect for the 2022 midterm elections later this year.

There’s a long road ahead for this litigation, and at the end awaits a US Supreme Court that is extremely hostile to voting rights. But you have to start somewhere, and who knows, maybe the landscape will change by that time.

Another look at how Galveston County disenfranchised its voters of color

The Trib takes a deep dive.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

Carver Park in Texas City, created during segregation, is considered the first African American county park in the state. It sits on land donated by descendants of freedmen who survived slavery and pioneered one of Texas’ oldest Black settlements, the footprint of which sits just a few blocks away.

Until last year, the park sat at the heart of Galveston County’s Precinct 3 — the most diverse of the four precincts that choose the commissioners court, which governs the county along with the county judge. Precinct 3 was the lone seat in which Black and Hispanic voters, who make up about 38% of the county’s population, made up the majority of the electorate.

The precinct sliced the middle of coastal Galveston County, stretching from the small city of Dickinson on the county’s northern end through residential areas of Texas City and down to the eastern end of Galveston Island. Its residents included medical professionals and staff drawn in by The University of Texas Medical Branch, petrochemical workers that operate a large cluster of refineries and commuter employees of the nearby NASA Johnson Space Center.

The area stood as an exemplar of Black political power and progress. For 30 years, Black voters — with support from Hispanics — had amassed enough political clout to decide the county commissioner for Precinct 3, propelling Black leaders onto a majority white county commissioners court. They worked to gain stronger footholds in local governments, elevating Black people into city halls across the precinct. Two years ago, they reached a milestone, electing Texas City’s first Black mayor and a city commission on which people of color are the majority.

But the white Republican majority on the Galveston County’s commissioners court decided last November to dismantle Precinct 3. Capitalizing on its first opportunity to redraw commissioner precincts without federal oversight, the court splintered Black and Hispanic communities into majority-white districts.

Under the final map, which will be used for this year’s election and possibly for a decade, white voters make up at least 62% of the electorate in each precinct, though the county’s total population is only about 55% white. Because white voters in Galveston — like Texas generally — tend to support different candidates than Black and Hispanic voters, the map will effectively quash the electoral power of voters of color.

The new map was so egregious to officials at the U.S. Department of Justice that it prompted the department to file its only federal lawsuit at the county level in the entire nation challenging a redistricting plan as discriminatory.

Black residents here have often needed federal intervention to help them pursue equality and fairness. Without it, it’s possible the white power structure will never voluntarily grant them them political equity and would continue threatening the gains they’ve achieved over the last few decades.

“With the district, people feel that they have a voice and a choice. Without it, no voice, no choice,” said Lucille McGaskey, a longtime Galveston County resident whose community in the city of La Marque was drawn out of Precinct 3. “It’s a shame … that it has come to people trying to wipe other people out.”

See here for a bit of background. The piece goes into Galveston’s racial and political history, and recaps how the soon-to-be-all-Republican Commissioners Court rammed through this new map with no real alternatives and with basically zero public input on the last day to adopt a new map. There are two federal lawsuits that have been filed over this new map, which was able to be adopted because preclearance was killed in 2013, but you know how I feel about the likelihood of any justice that way. Indeed, the story notes that Galveston County has “asked for a postponement in the case until possibly 2023 while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge out of Alabama that could further contract the Voting Rights Act’s protections from discrimination in redistricting”. The writing is on the wall here. The only way forward is more voting, at a time when the powers that be have made it as difficult as possible to vote, and to have your vote make a meaningful difference. I don’t know what else to say.

Second lawsuit filed over Galveston redistricting

Similar grounds, different plaintiffs.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

A coalition of civil rights groups in Texas filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Galveston County, alleging that the county’s redistricting plan intentionally discriminates against a growing minority population in the Gulf Coast community.

The complaint, shared first with CNN, marks the second lawsuit that seeks to overturn maps approved by the Republican majority on the county’s governing body. Last month, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the county on similar grounds — in a redistricting dispute that has garnered national attention.

The new lawsuit — brought by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of local branches of the NAACP and the Galveston League of United Latin American Citizens Council 151 — alleges that the new map diminishes the voting power of Black and Hispanic voters by splitting up the only majority-minority precinct.

The new map endangers the reelection of Stephen Holmes, the county’s only Black commissioner, who has served on the board for 22 years. Holmes is next on the ballot in 2024.

The lawsuit alleges the Republicans majority pushed through a “racially discriminatory map” that “largely took place behind closed doors.”

Sarah Chen, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the map — and the process used by the Republican majority in the county to approve it — “egregious examples of people in power … exercising that power to dilute the votes of racial minorities.”

[…]

Both this lawsuit and the complaint by the Justice Department underscore the difficult legal terrain that voting rights advocates now face in challenging alleged discriminatory maps. This cycle marks the first round of redistricting since the US Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the so-called preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That provision required states with a history of discrimination to first obtain the permission of the federal government or the courts before enacting new laws related to voting.

With those powers gone, the Justice Department’s lawsuit relies largely on another section of the federal voting rights law, Section 2, which puts the burden on the federal government to prove its case.

The lawsuit filed Thursday cites Section 2, but also argues that map violates the constitutional rights of Black and Latino voters to equal protection of the law.

Chen said civil rights groups are looking for “different pathways” in voting rights cases “because victory is never assured.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is co-counsel along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has a tweet thread about this as well. I haven’t read through the two of them so I can’t say where they are specifically similar and different, but the coverage suggests they have overlap. It won’t surprise me if these two lawsuits are eventually combined. I remain less than confident that the plaintiffs will get the relief they seek given the hostility the federal courts have shown towards voting rights in recent years, but I will say that I’m old enough to remember a day when a white majority reducing the political power of communities of color for the reasons of “because we can, that’s why” was considered to be in poor taste. I feel like we should try to return to those days, but what do I know? Daily Kos has more.

Sen. Powell ends her re-election bid

Disappointing but understandable.

Sen. Beverly Powell

State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, ended her reelection campaign Wednesday morning, citing an “unwinnable race” in a district that Republican lawmakers had redrawn to make a Democratic win impossible.

“Under the new map that will remain intact through November, the results of the 2022 election are predetermined,” she said in a video message published Wednesday morning. “Election prospects for any candidate who relies on a diverse voter coalition will be thwarted. So after a great deal of thought, prayer and consultation with family, friends and supporters, I have decided to withdraw my name from the ballot.

“I cannot in good faith ask my dedicated supporters to spend time and contribute precious resources on an unwinnable race,” she said. “That time and those resources are better spent on efforts that will advance our causes and on the continuing efforts to restore voting rights.”

In withdrawing her nomination, Powell all but gives the election to Republican nominee state Rep. Phil King of Weatherford. Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said on Twitter that the Texas Democratic Party can only replace its nominee if Powell is withdrawing due to a catastrophic illness, no other party has a nominee, or she’s appointed or elected to another office.

[…]

Powell and a group of the district’s voters and civil rights organizations sued the state in federal court to block the map’s implementation for the March primary. But a three-judge panel in El Paso denied their request to block the map’s use in the primary, keeping it in place until later in the year when the panel will hold hearings on challenges to the state’s political maps for the Texas House, Senate, Board of Education and congressional seats.

Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas has not made it through a single decade without a federal court admonishing it for violating federal protections for voters of color.

In her message, Powell said the newly drawn map will be in effect “for at least the November general election.”

Powell said she will continue to serve through the end of her term in January and will look for other opportunities to serve the public.

“Serving as your Texas state senator has been the honor of my lifetime,” she said. “Thank you for entrusting me with this sacred privilege.”

See here and here for some background. SD10 was easily the main Republican target in redistricting, going from 53-45 Biden to 57-41 Trump in the process. It’s likely to trend Democratic over this decade as it did over the previous one, but even an optimistic projection would suggest 2026 or 2028 before it might become competitive. I hate the idea of giving up on a district, even if it’s not winnable, on the grounds that local campaigns are a part of the overall turnout effort, but if the idea behind this is to do some triage and direct funds away from a race like this one, where an endangered incumbent could generate a lot of cash for their likely-to-be-doomed effort, and to ones with a greater chance of success, I can’t argue with it. I thank Sen. Powell for her service and hope that we have better luck with the lawsuit and the demographic trends. Reform Austin has more.

The dark side of redistricting litigation

The state of Texas is taking a big swing in defense of its gerrymanders, and if they connect it’s going to be devastating.

Beyond the immediate legal fight over whether Texas lawmakers again discriminated against voters of color when drawing new political districts, a quieter war is being waged that could dramatically constrict voting rights protections nationwide for years to come.

For decades, redistricting in Texas has tracked a familiar rhythm — new maps are followed by claims of discrimination and lawsuits asking federal courts to step in. Over the years, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly been ordered to correct gerrymandering that suppressed the political power of Black and Hispanic voters.

The pathway to federal court has been through the Voting Rights Act. Key portions of the landmark law have been weakened in the last decade, but Texans of color still find a way to file lawsuits under its Section 2, which prohibits discriminatory voting procedures and practices that deny voters of color an equal opportunity to participate in elections.

Those protections are the vehicle being used by voters and various civil rights groups to challenge political maps for Congress and the state legislature drawn by Texas Republicans in 2021 to account for population growth. In what promises to be a protracted court fight, Texas will defend itself against accusations that it discriminated — in some cases intentionally — against voters of color.

But tucked into the legal briefs the state has filed with a three-judge panel considering the redistricting lawsuits are two arguments that reach far beyond the validity of the specific maps being challenged.

First, the Texas attorney general’s office is arguing that private individuals — like the average voters and civil rights groups now suing the state — don’t have standing to bring lawsuits under Section 2. That would leave only the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue alleged violations of the act, putting enforcement in the hands of the political party in power.

Second, the state argues that Section 2 does not apply to redistricting issues at all.

Should either argument prevail — which would almost certainly require it to be embraced by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court that has already struck down other portions of the law — the courthouse door will be slammed shut on many future lawsuits over discriminatory map-drawing and voting practices.

“Fundamentally, this Supreme Court thinks we are past the time in which we need the Voting Rights Act, so of course if you’re a state like Texas, you’re going to bring every argument that’s ever been made to challenge the constitutionality of the rest of it,” said Franita Tolson, a vice dean and law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

[…]

The turnover at the Supreme Court has cracked the door for “audacious attacks on Section 2,” that would have “never had a chance” under previous iterations of the court, said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who specializes in voting law. Texas is trying to push the door wide open.

In legal briefs, Texas’ argument that Section 2 does not apply to redistricting relies almost exclusively on a series of comments in opinions by Justice Clarence Thomas, who has plainly endorsed the idea in cases dating back to 1994. Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee who joined the court in 2017, echoed the view in one of Thomas’ recent opinions.

In a recent case over Arizona voting laws, Thomas and Gorsuch also joined an opinion indicating they agreed with the argument Texas is offering now that private individuals cannot sue to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The fallout if the Supreme Court agreed with the state on either argument would be radical, upending long established procedures for litigating claims of discrimination in voting and redistricting, and making it harder to enforce what has endured as the chief federal protection for voters of color in a post-preclearance world.

Covering its bets, the state is also pressing a backup argument — that even if individual voters are allowed to sue under Section 2, organizations that serve voters of color cannot bring claims on their behalf. That could knock out of the box groups like the NAACP and LULAC who may have more resources and membership across the state to prop up the complex challenges.

If affirmed by the court, that prospect would put even more pressure on private individuals to protect themselves from alleged discrimination by the state, said Noor Taj, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing various civil rights and community groups that serve Texans of color, particularly Asian Texans, in a lawsuit against the maps.

“It’s either taking their rights altogether or increasing the burden,” Taj said. “Both ends of that are problematic and incorrect.”

If the high court ultimately decides redistricting lawsuits simply aren’t allowed under Section 2, the recourse left for Texans of color to challenge political maps would be litigation under the U.S. Constitution’s broader promise of equal protection.

That would require challengers to show lawmakers intentionally discriminated against them — “which is the hardest case to win, particularly before a Supreme Court,” said Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The state’s efforts to overturn protections for voters of color is ironic given its long history of violating the same law it is now looking to gut, said Perales, who is suing the state over its latest maps on behalf of a group of individual voters and organizations that represent Latinos.

“Since the beginning of the modern era of decennial redistricting, Texas has been found liable for violating the voting rights of Latinos in every single cycle,” Perales said.

The more “aggressive attacks” on Section 2 have come as it’s getting harder for Republicans to comply with the law while preserving their power, Hasen said.

If you can’t comply with the law but you have the power to change it so that you don’t have to, well, it’s obvious what you’ll do. The state’s arguments have not gained any purchase with the three-judge panel at the district court level, but we know where it goes from there. The Democrats would like to do something at the national level about this, but as long as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are deciding votes, they don’t actually have the power. (Beating Ken Paxton this fall would also help, but this argument is going to get before SCOTUS one way or another eventually regardless.) And so we get to watch this play out like a slow-motion train wreck, and we’re all standing close enough to it to be collateral damage. Isn’t that nice?

Judge rules against Prairie View students in 2018 voting rights case

There was a lot of legal activity last week, so it took me a minute to get to this story.

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Waller County did not discriminate against student voters at Prairie View A&M University during the 2018 general election when it granted them fewer days and hours for early voting, the latest chapter in a history of voting rights struggles in the southeast Texas county.

In a 128-page ruling and summary of the case, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Eskridge said there wasn’t evidence to “establish a concern” over the lack of any early voting location on campus or in the city of Prairie View during the first week of early voting that year. The county commissioners court, Eskridge found, allocated early voting locations and hours on an “objective and reasonable basis” that did not run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act or the U.S. Constitution.

The case dates to 2018, when a group of Prairie View A&M students sued the county, alleging it set up an unlawful lopsided schedule that offered students — most of them Black — fewer opportunities to vote early than the county’s white residents. But the fight over student voting rights on the historically Black campus, built on a former plantation, stretches across decades and generations of students.

[…]

The legal fight emerged in the fall of 2018 when students realized the county’s early voting schedule left Prairie View residents with far fewer days and hours for voting than other population centers in the county, and zero opportunity to vote in the city during the first half of the early voting period.

Prairie View, where the vast majority of residents are Black, had five days of early voting. In two of the three other towns that serve as population hubs in Waller County, with many more white residents than Prairie View, early voting would run during all 12 days of the early voting period. In the third town, early voting would be available for 11 days.

The students pressed for better access at a commissioners court meeting five days before the start of early voting in 2018, at which Waller County Judge Trey Duhon noted there was “an inequity” in the number of overall hours among commissioners’ precincts. But the court ultimately voted to make no changes.

Students sued days later, asking a federal judge to order the county to set up an early voting site on campus that would offer weekend hours. This prompted an emergency meeting in which the commissioners court instead voted to extend hours on the three days an on-campus location was previously scheduled to host voting during the second week of early voting. And in a city without public transportation and where many students don’t have cars, the court added five hours of weekend voting at Prairie View City Hall — a two-and-a-half-mile walk one way from some student housing.

At a roughly two-week trial in 2020, Duhon cast the commissioners court’s 2018 decisions as a balancing act to provide early voting access to everyone in the county “to the best of our ability.” He reasoned that because the on-campus voting location was in a student center frequented by students — some passing through multiple times a day — hosting early voting there for two or three days “affords them multiple opportunities” to cast their ballots.

But the county also argued students were seeking preferential access over the community, including residents who have to travel longer distances to vote.

[…]

In listing the various reasons for why he sided with the county, Eskridge noted that Prairie View had more voting hours than smaller population centers and that the two precincts in Waller County with the most allocated hours were majority-Black districts.

He also wrote that the initial early voting plan was adopted following normal procedures, including a joint agreement by the local party chairs. The county previously explained that the local chair of the Democratic Party had asked to push early voting at Prairie View to the second week of the early voting period, noting concerns that voting would conflict with homecoming events.

And students were offered a “convenience of hours” at an on-campus location they frequented that others in the county did not have, he wrote.

“At best, Plaintiffs establish a mere inconvenience imposed on PVAMU students with respect to the early voting schedule for the 2018 general election,” Eskridge said. “In reality, it’s rather doubtful that the early voting locations and hours provided by Waller County to PVAMU students can be understood as creating any incremental inconvenience at all.”

See here and here for some background. A copy of the opinion, which I have not read, is here. It seems like Waller County did try to make some accommodations, which the judge accepted as sufficient, though why the PVA&M locations couldn’t have been there for the duration of early voting remains a question to me. I’m sure Waller County would say they were just doing the best they could with the resources they had, and since the judge bought it, there had to be some merit to that. I would say this is an argument for the state to put up more money for counties to provide more voting locations, as well as an argument for making it easier to vote by mail and allowing more people to vote by mail, instead of the ridiculous system we have now. That would be a very cost-effective way to accommodate people who would otherwise have a difficult time getting to a voting location. For obvious reasons, we’re not getting any of that with the state government we have now.

Justice Department sues over Galveston County Commissioners Court map

Good, but remember how the federal courts are these days before getting too optimistic.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

The Department of Justice on Thursday sued Galveston County over its new redistricting map, accusing Republican county officials of violating the Voting Rights Act last year when they carved up their Commissioners Court precincts into four majority-white districts.

The redrawn map dismantles the precinct represented by Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the only Democrat and minority member of the court, all but ensuring his defeat in 2024 if the map remains intact.

Under the new layout, Republicans are poised to gain a 5-0 majority on the governing body for Galveston County, where 38 percent of voters cast their ballots for Democrat Joe Biden.

In a 25-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Justice Department officials alleged that Galveston County’s freshly drawn boundaries dilute the voting strength of Black and Hispanic voters, denying them “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.” The lawsuit accuses the county of violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which broadly bars racially discriminatory voting practices, including those that minimize the voting strength of racial minority groups.

In asking the court to toss the precincts for “any future elections” — and order the county to redraw a map “that complies with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act” — the Justice Department also cited Galveston County’s history of drawing federal scrutiny over redistricting. In 2012, federal officials struck down the county’s commissioner, constable and justice-of-the-peace maps, finding that they ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act by diminishing the power of minority voters.

“Over the course of the past three decades, Galveston County has sought to eliminate electoral opportunities for the County’s Black and Hispanic voters,” the lawsuit reads. “The County has a long history of adopting discriminatory redistricting plans.”

[…]

Commissioners Court approved the latest boundaries in November, uprooting Holmes’ Precinct 3 from parts of the county he had represented since being appointed to the court in 1999. While the district had previously cut through the middle of Galveston County, covering an area where the majority of eligible voters were Black and Hispanic, it is now consolidated in the largely white and Republican northwest corner of the county, taking in Friendswood and League City.

Holmes has said he expects to be replaced by a white candidate, given that only about a quarter of the eligible voters in his new precinct are minorities.

“Even though Galveston County is 45 percent minority, every single member of the Galveston County Commissioners Court, under the new map, is going to be Anglo,” Holmes said in an interview last November. “Minorities would not be represented by, or have the opportunity to elect, the candidate of their choice.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The story notes the 2012 redistricting in Galveston that was blocked for being discriminatory, and also notes that that happened back when we still had preclearance. We don’t have that, and we do have a Supreme Court that is increasingly aggressive in allowing all kinds of radical Republican redistricting maps to stand, so like I said, I’m not optimistic. But what else are you gonna do? Reform Austin has more.

A trifecta of crap from the Fifth Circuit

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has ruled for Texas in three lawsuits challenging the state’s voting laws, including mail-in ballot provisions and the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

In a series of 2-1 rulings Wednesday evening, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lawsuits by civil rights groups, political organizations and voters targeted the wrong state agency — the Texas secretary of state’s office — when they sought to overturn a string of voting laws and practices.

Because the secretary of state is not in charge of enforcing the challenged laws, the agency is protected by sovereign immunity in all three lawsuits, said the opinions written by Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan and joined by Judge Don Willett.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham dissented in all three cases, writing that he believed the majority was splitting hairs by narrowly interpreting which state officers enforce election laws.

The secretary of state is the chief election officer of Texas who is charged by law with protecting the voting rights of Texans “from abuse by the authorities administering the state’s electoral processes,” Higginbotham wrote.

“The allegation in these cases is that the Secretary is failing in that duty. This charge should satisfy our … inquiry,” he said.

Reporter Chuck Lindell first posted about this on Twitter, so if for some reason the Statesman link doesn’t work or gets paywalled, you can see the basics there. Let’s break down the three cases:

A challenge by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and two national Democratic organizations sought to overturn a 2017 law that ended straight-ticket voting, also known as one-punch voting because it lets voters select all candidates of a particular political party in one step.

A state district judge barred enforcement of the law, ruling in September 2020 that the change unconstitutionally burdened the right to vote.

See here and here for the background. This one confused me at first, because there had been a basically identical challenge filed earlier in the same court by a different set of plaintiffs that was later dismissed by that judge. I don’t know why the subsequent challenge, which fell under the Democracy Docket umbrella, was more successful, but there you have it. You may recall I was skeptical of this one, and of the three it’s the one I’m the least upset about. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling is here.

A lawsuit by the NAACP and Texas Alliance for Retired Americans sought to block mail-in ballot regulations that require voters to pay for postage and mandate that ballots be postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day and received by 5 p.m. on the next day.

The lawsuit also challenged signature-matching requirements and a law that makes it a crime to possess another voter’s mail ballot.

See here and here for the background. I thought this was an interesting suit that made a reasoned case and that in a fair world would have gotten a more thoughtful review by the Fifth Circuit, but that ain’t the world we live in. I don’t know if this subject was addressed in one of the many voting rights bills that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema personally strangled (with the help of all 50 Republicans, of course), but if there’s ever another opportunity to address voting rights at a federal level, this should be an item on the to do list. The Fifth Circuit opinion is here.

A lawsuit by groups including the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities challenged the process of verifying mail-in ballots by ensuring that the voter’s signature on the outside envelope matches the signature on the vote-by-mail application.

A trial judge granted a detailed injunction limiting the practice in September 2020, but again the 5th Circuit Court stepped in to halt the injunction until the appeal was decided. Wednesday’s ruling vacated the injunction.

See here, here, and here for the background. Remember when signature matching was our biggest concern about mail ballots? Boy, those were the days. Anyway, even though this suit was filed in 2019, that injunction was halted by a different Fifth Circuit panel because it was too close to the election. There’s always, always an excuse. The opinion for this one is here.

The first and third cases were reversed and remanded to the district court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion”, while the second was reversed and remanded with instructions to dismiss. I’m not quite sure what further proceedings there may be, and it may be that the bigger problems caused by SB1 may make the third case not particularly relevant at this time, I dunno. I assume that since the issue cited by the Fifth Circuit was that the SOS was not the proper defendant, the cases could be refiled with some number of county election administrators as defendants instead. I don’t know how practical that would be, and I also don’t know if this is just a prelude to the Fifth Circuit (or later SCOTUS) ruling that actually you can’t sue those people either, because the whole idea that you can pursue redress in a federal court is just an illusion anyway or whatever. We’ll see if anything does get refiled, but I would not feel particularly optimistic about any of it.

UPDATE: And when I checked Twitter on Thursday, I saw that Prof. Vladeck had addressed my questions.

Always expect the worst from the Fifth Circuit. You’ll almost never be wrong.

No restraining order in SD10 lawsuit

The March primary will officially proceed as scheduled.

Sen. Beverly Powell

A federal three-judge panel in El Paso on Tuesday denied a request by Tarrant County residents to block a reconfigured state Senate district from being used in the upcoming March primary election while they pursue a lawsuit arguing that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they redrew its boundaries.

The legal challenge to Senate District 10 in the Fort Worth area offered the only avenue to alter the state political maps drawn last year by the Legislature before the primary election. The Republican-controlled Legislature used the once-a-decade redistricting process to draw maps solidifying the GOP’s political dominance while weakening the influence of voters of color.

Without a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the maps will remain in place until later this year, when the panel is expected to hold a trial to hear the large collection of challenges to the new maps for the state House and Senate, the State Board of Education and the state’s Congressional seats.

The plaintiffs — including Democratic state Sen. Beverly Powell, who represents SD-10 in its previous configuration — and attorneys for the state faced off in an El Paso courtroom last week during a four-day hearing before the three-judge panel. The plaintiffs were asking for a temporary injunction blocking the primary using the redrawn SD-10.

[…]

The state also argued it was too late to make changes for the March 1 primary, for which mail-in ballots have already started going out. In-person early voting begins Feb. 14.

The three-judge panel did not specify its reasons for siding with the state in its Tuesday order, saying those would be contained in a forthcoming opinion. The panel did note the state’s argument that an order to block the use of the redrawn SD-10 so close to the primary election would “fly in the face” of the Supreme Court’s previous warnings that lower courts should not make changes “on the eve of an election.”

See here and here for the background. I can’t say I’m surprised – we are less than two weeks out from the start of early voting, and mail ballots are being sent to those lucky few who have managed to fill out their applications correctly. Whether it was possible for the court to have acted faster than this I can’t say, but given where we are now, this was the most likely outcome. This lawsuit and the other federal and state suits will proceed later, and if there are any remedies offered they will happen no earlier than the 2024 election. Which means that if the plaintiffs do eventually prevail in this one, it will be too late for Sen. Powell, who is a big underdog in the current district. That sucks and it’s not fair, but it’s where we are. All we can do is move forward.

The SD10 redistricting lawsuit gets off to a rousing start

I did not see this coming.

Sen. Beverly Powell

In a sworn declaration submitted as part of an ongoing federal court challenge, a senior Republican state senator with redistricting experience said he believes his party violated federal voting laws when it drew new boundaries for state Senate District 10 in the Fort Worth area.

“Having participated in the 2011 and 2013 Senate Select Redistricting Committee proceedings, and having read the prior federal court decision regarding SD10, it was obvious to me that the renewed effort to dismantle SD 10 violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution,” state Sen. Kel Seliger said in a declaration signed in November.

The statement from the Amarillo Republican emerged this week as part of a dayslong hearing before a three-judge panel considering a lawsuit that claims the district was intentionally reconfigured to discriminate against voters of color in Tarrant County.

[…]

Seliger chaired the Senate’s redistricting committee last decade, redrawing the state’s maps following the 2010 census when a similar attempt to reshape the district was found to be discriminatory. A federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled in 2012 that lawmakers had discriminated against voters of color in dismantling the district and cracking apart their communities. As a result, the Legislature went back to restore the district’s configuration.

Seliger affirmed his declaration in a video deposition taken earlier this month — portions of which were played in open court in El Paso this week — during which he also said that “pretextual reasons” were given for how political boundaries were decided during the 2021 redistricting process.

Seliger pointed to the redrawing of his own district in the Texas Panhandle as an example. The district was reconfigured so that it lost several counties from the region while picking up about a dozen on the southern end of the district, closer to Midland, from where Seliger had picked up a primary challenger. He ultimately decided against seeking reelection.

[…]

On Wednesday, Seliger told The Texas Tribune that his statement about the illegality of SD-10 was “more of a concern than it was an assertion” of whether there was a violation.

“When you draw a map that essentially takes out minorities or, in what was more the point, take out the chance that there would ever be a Democrat elected there, was there a violation?” Seliger said. “It’s not an assertion on my part because I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but that was my concern about Sen. Powell’s district — to take that district and completely change it and it still marginalized minorities in that district.”

He added that there was a “context” surrounding the drawing of SD-10 — even as Huffman asserted she had not paid any attention to racial data in drawing its boundaries — that requires lawmakers to consider race.

“The Voting Rights Act says if you can create a district in which a historically marginalized minority can elect a candidate of their choice, you must draw that district,” Seliger said. “You start with that principle in every single district.”

See here for the background. Basically, he’s saying that the Republicans did the same things that they did ten years ago that were cited as illegal under the Voting Rights Act by a federal court in 2012. That’s a strong argument that the district as drawn now is also illegal, though it’s hardly conclusive. The previous lawsuit was settled rather than taken to a verdict, so the state will probably just argue now that they shouldn’t have settled then. It’s a good and unexpected (for me, anyway) start for the plaintiffs, who for now are just trying to get something like the old district restored for the 2022 election, but we haven’t heard from the state yet.

More from the hearing:

Two of Tarrant County’s local elected officials testified Tuesday that new political maps passed by Republicans in the Texas Legislature will dilute the voting power of minority voters in a Fort Worth state senate district.

The testimony from Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio Leon and County Commissioner Charles Brooks came during a hearing in El Paso in one of several challenges against the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott after the Republican-led Texas Legislature redrew political maps following the 2020 U.S. Census.

And although this week’s hearing is limited in scope — it pertains to one state senate district in North Texas — attorneys said testimony could foretell what is to come later this year when a slew of other redistricting challenges are heard in a consolidated redistricting lawsuit.

[…]

During testimony Tuesday in El Paso, De Leon said much of his Precinct 5 was originally in Senate District 10 before redistricting. But now, the Senate District has been split in two. This has shifted some Black and Hispanic voters — formerly in the northern part of his precinct — into a Senate District with more Anglo voters. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic voters in the southern part of his precinct are grouped with rural white voters.

“They’ll have zero impact” on upcoming races, DeLeon said.

Brooks, who was first elected as a county commissioner in 2004, said redistricting has grouped Black and Hispanic voters with Anglo residents who do not share the same values.

“Their voices will be greatly diminished to the point of not being heard and effective in getting their points of view across,” he said, adding that his precinct is about 60% Democrats and 40% Republicans. But Tarrant County generally tends to vote Republican, he said.

Not quite as much any more. If these plaintiffs can get a favorable ruling, then that is probably a good sign for the others, though of course there are no guarantees and SCOTUS remains hostile to voting rights. If these plaintiffs can’t get anywhere, it’s hard to see how any of the others will fare better. If nothing else, we should have an answer quickly. Spectrum News has more.

SD10 lawsuit gets its hearing

The last possible obstacle to a March primary, and the first redistricting lawsuit to get a merits hearing.

Sen. Beverly Powell

A federal district judge in El Paso on Tuesday will preside over one of several challenges against the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott after the Republican-led Texas Legislature redrew political maps following the 2020 U.S. Census.

And although this week’s hearing is limited in scope — it pertains to one state senate district in North Texas — attorneys said testimony could foretell what is to come later this year when a slew of other redistricting challenges are heard in a consolidated redistricting lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama will hear a challenge to the redrawn political boundaries for Fort Worth’s state Senate District 10, currently represented by Democrat Beverly Powell. Powell and six Tarrant County residents filed the lawsuit in early November, alleging the new map purposely dilutes the voting strength of minorities.

“In each decennial redistricting cycle in modern history, Texas has enacted plans that federal courts have ruled to be racially discriminatory in intent and/or effect. Like clockwork, Texas has done so again,” the lawsuit asserts. “Remarkably, Texas has enacted the same racially discriminatory scheme to dismantle Senate District 10.”

[…]

Attorney Mark P. Gaber, who represents Powell and the other plaintiffs, said their case is scheduled ahead of the others this fall because they asked the judge to make a decision in time for the November 2022 General Election.

“The claims are that the drawing of the senate district was intentionally discriminatory by cracking apart Black and Latino voters. What we are asking the court to do is enter relief in time to affect the November 22 election,” he said. “So, we would put the district that exists now back in place and that would require some changes to the surrounding districts as well.”

Graber said this week’s hearing could foreshadow what to expect later this year.

“I imagine for one thing there is going to be testimony and that doesn’t go away. And that could be relevant to other claims as well,” he said. “We’ll probably get some legal ruling from the court that will affect issues beyond Senate District 10 in terms of what the court determines are the facts of law.”

See here for the background. The DMN has more details.

Of the federal redistricting complaints, Powell’s alone seeks an injunction and changes to the maps ahead of the March 1 primary elections. A panel of three federal judges set a September trial start date in the consolidated redistricting case. There’s also a challenge in Texas state court.

“A crucial fight is underway to preserve District 10 as a Tarrant County-based diverse district where minority voters and Anglos unite to elect their candidate of choice,” said Powell, who is suing as a private citizen and not in her official capacity, when she filed for reelection last month.

The previously Fort Worth-centric seat that had been contained inside Tarrant County grew at least tenfold in geographic size and added part of Parker County and all of Johnson, Palo Pinto, Stephens, Shackelford, Callahan and Brown counties.

It previously favored President Joe Biden by eight points, according to election returns. But the redrawn district would have gone for Donald Trump by 16 points, a 24-point swing that likely dooms Powell’s hopes for reelection.

Republicans say the maps are legal and fair. Lawyers for the state argued the Legislature acted according to partisan motivations, not racial ones, and warned that blocking the map would disrupt the 2022 elections already in motion.

“This case is about politics, not race,” state lawyers responded in a filing that was blunt about the GOP majority’s approach. “Their goal, as always, was to design to elect a Republican. And they succeeded, at least on paper.”

Texas argued the Tarrant County citizens’ claims fail because “the Legislature simply did not consider race for purposes of redrawing” District 10 except for compliance with applicable law.

[…]

To lock things in place until the lawsuit is resolved, Powell’s legal team asked the federal court to block the map, with respect to District 10, from being used in elections and to restore the district’s previous boundaries. The plaintiffs also asked the court to delay primary elections affected by that change, noting that lawmakers already approved a back-up primary schedule.

[…]

It’s unclear, if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs on District 10, which other primaries would be delayed. The goal is to restore the seat with as few changes as possible to the rest of the map, said Matt Angle, founder and director of the progressive Lone Star Project.

I noted this hearing in yesterday’s post about the state of the state lawsuits, as those now will be held later (if they are not tossed by SCOTx) and will not have an effect on this year’s primaries. I don’t expect there to be any delays in the primaries this year. It’s possible that the three-judge panel, which has one Trump judge, one Obama judge, and the ever-present Jerry Smith, could issue an injunction, but I doubt that the Fifth Circuit would let it stand, and if somehow that happened then SCOTUS would intervene SCOTUS would get to have a say as well. (Yes, maybe I’m being cynical, but how is that a losing proposition these days?) Whatever does happen, it will have to happen quickly – we’ve already passed the deadline for mail ballots to be sent to military and overseas voters, and early in person voting for the primaries starts in less than three weeks. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this.

UPDATE: Made a correction to note that the appeals process from this three-judge panel goes to SCOTUS, not the Fifth Circuit.

Supreme Court rejects mandamus over Commissioners Court redistricting

The primary will proceed as scheduled, but the issue could be revisited sometime after the 2022 election.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republican commissioners and voters to block Harris County’s recent redistricting plan on Friday, suggesting another challenge still in the works will meet a similar fate.

In their challenge, the petitioners argued that the new maps amounted to illegal Democratic gerrymandering. The new precincts approved by Harris County leaders last year resulted in dramatic shifts that the challengers argued would disenfranchise voters in the upcoming primaries.

But in a narrow ruling, the justices found that they likely couldn’t provide any relief to the challengers because the wheels of the election were already in motion.

“(N)o amount of expedited briefing or judicial expediency at this point can change the fact that the primary election for 2022 is already in its early stages,” their opinion read. “This Court and other Texas courts are duty-bound to respond quickly to urgent cases that warrant expedited proceedings, but even with utmost judicial speed, any relief that we theoretically could provide here would necessarily disrupt the ongoing election process.”

The result is that the new precinct maps will be allowed to stand. The Democratic majority on commissioners court adopted the maps on a 3-2 party line vote in October.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion, which is also embedded in the story. It’s fairly brief and pretty straightforward, so let me summarize:

– The current map violates federal law because of population differences among the four precincts. It was not an option for the court to order that the current map be used while the appeals played out.

– The court ruled that their role in redistricting is limited, and that they did not have nearly enough facts to go on, as many of the plaintiffs’ claims remain in dispute. The burden required to make them step in and halt or change the election, which is already underway, was far too high for them to take action on such a short notice.

– Regarding the (ridiculous) claim about people being disenfranchised because they would have to wait until 2024 to vote when they had been expecting to vote in 2022, the court noted that some number of people will always be in that position when redistricting occurs. The Constitution requires the State Senate (which like Commissioners Court has staggered four-year terms) to have everyone run after redistricting, but there’s no such requirement for Commissioners Courts, which moved to four-year terms by an amendment in 1954. Ordering all four precincts to be on the ballot in 2022 was rejected because of the limited time for anyone who might run in the other precincts to get going. The court also noted that any short-term remedy for Harris County might cause problems with other counties, if people could make similar claims about being disenfranchised.

– Given all that, the court said it had no choice but to reject the writ of mandamus and allow the 2022 election to go forward as planned. The court did not make any claims or judgments about the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments, and said that if the matter comes back to them after going through the lower courts, they can evaluate them at that time.

So there you have it. There is still the Radack lawsuit out there, but as the story notes it seems extremely unlikely that will succeed at affecting this election based on this ruling. The Cagle/Ramsey lawsuit was dismissed in Harris County district court, so I presume the next step would be for the dismissal, which was made on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked jurisdiction (this is what the story said, perhaps this should be standing), to be appealed. Success for the plaintiffs would mean sending the case back to a district court, hopefully (for them) to get a hearing and ruling on the merits, which would naturally be appealed by whoever lost. My guess is that this whole process would take a few years if everything proceeds at its normal pace. While the Supreme Court allowed for the possibility of an all-precinct election (under another new map) in 2024, or even a special election presumably before then, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it. Same thing for the Radack lawsuit, which as far as I know has not had an initial hearing yet.

Finally, while this story does not mention it, I wonder if this may also signal the death knell for the two state court redistricting challenges, on the same grounds of not having enough time to do something before people begin voting. That last update suggested the possibility of a trial this week, but I am not aware of any news to that effect. The cases are in Travis County district court, if anyone wants to try to figure that out.

What does “race blind” redistricting even mean?

Good question.

In states like Texas and North Carolina, Republican lawmakers in charge of redrawing the political maps for the next decade say that the new plans are “race blind.” Their opponents in court say that the claim is implausible and one that, in some situations, is at odds with the Voting Rights Act.

Several lawsuits, including from the Justice Department, allege that the maps drawn after the 2020 census discriminate against voters of color.

Between a 2013 Supreme Court decision that scaled back the federal government’s role in monitoring redistricting and a 2019 ruling that said partisan gerrymanders could not be challenged in federal court, voting rights advocates have been left with fewer tools to address what they say are unfair and illegal redistricting plans.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the states where the redistricting legal fights have been most pitched have adopted an approach that claims that racial data played no role as they drew the maps for the next 10 years. Legislators say they’re avoiding the use of race data after decades of litigation where they’ve been accused of unconstitutionally relying on race to gerrymander.

“I don’t view this as a serious legal defense, but more of a PR defense,” said Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is suing Texas lawmakers over their new maps.

Challengers to the maps say that such an assertion of “race blind” maps is dubious as well as a betrayal of states’ obligations under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in redistricting. The law requires that in some circumstances, map-makers must draw plans in a way that creates minority-majority districts where voters can elect the candidates of their choice. In lawsuits alleging a failure to comply with the law, states like Texas have been accused of drawing maps that instead dilute the votes of communities of color.

Legislators may be trying to “immunize” themselves from most of the claims that are used in court to strike down redistricting maps, according to Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor and redistricting expert.

“By saying race was not in the minds of the people who drew the lines, you potentially get out of those constitutional causes action that you are intentionally diluting the vote of racial minorities or that race was the predominant factor in the construction of a district,” Persily told CNN, adding that such an approach doesn’t shield map-drawers from cases alleging Voting Rights Act violations.

Lawmakers’ description of maps as “race blind” is both “political rhetoric” and “test case rhetoric,” said Ben Ginsberg, a former Republican redistricting lawyer who is not involved in the current lawsuits. “But still, the standard is you can’t dilute minority voting power and minority opportunity to vote for their candidates of choice. And by not using race data they run the risk of being found to have diluted minority voting strength from what’s in the current map.”

[…]

In tension with legislators’ obligations under the Voting Rights Act are the limits the Constitution — under Supreme Court precedent — put on the use of race in redistricting.

The Supreme Court has said, via the 1993 decision in Shaw v. Reno, that use of race as a sole factor in drawing districts unconstitutional in most circumstances. However, the Voting Rights Act presents the sort of compelling government interest that allows for race to be considered.

Jason Torchinsky — a Republican election lawyer who has defended North Carolina legislators in redistricting cases in the past, but is not involved in the current cases in North Carolina or Texas– told CNN that map-drawers have to walk the line between their VRA obligations and not running afoul of the Constitution.

“Legislatures have to use very localized data to determine if they are required to draw [Voting Rights Act] Section 2 districts,” Torchinsky said. “If they are, then they have to consider race in those parts of the states because they’re required to under the Voting Rights Act.” But when states aren’t required to draw VRA districts, Torchinsky said, the use of race could pose a potential Constitutional problem.

I mean, if SCOTUS hadn’t killed preclearance back in 2013, we wouldn’t be having most of this debate right now, because none of these extreme maps would have seen the light of day. The claim at the time that we didn’t need preclearance any more because racial discrimination was a thing of the past was ludicrous then and is beyond obscene now. The 2019 ruling that said SCOTUS was unable to deal with partisan gerrymandering claims, even as the lower courts had no trouble adjudicating them, was cowardly and shameful. Of course, we do have what could be a pretty good answer to all that sitting on the Senate agenda, if we can somehow manage to convince two loathsome Senators that American democracy is a bigger concern than arcane and anti-democratic Senate rules. Until then, the only thing you can count on is that something is legal if SCOTUS says it is, no more and no less. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Law firm representing Spring Branch ISD withdraws from redistricting lawsuit

Interesting.

The law firm Thompson & Horton LLP has represented Spring Branch ISD in multiple legal matters since 2005.

While Thompson & Horton were originally representing SBISD in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit that Virginia Elizondo filed against the district and its trustees, the firm announced earlier this month that it would be withdrawing as counsel on the case.

“All I can really say is that Thompson & Horton requested to withdraw because we believe it to be in the best interest of the school district,” said lead attorney Chris Gilbert. “And that we believe the issues in the lawsuit are too important for the focus to be on who is legal counsel as opposed to the lawsuit itself.”

Gilbert would not give more details, citing attorney-client privilege.

The only statement from the district expressed similar ideas, saying, “On December 3, 2021, Thompson & Horton informed the Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustees of their desire to withdraw as counsel in Elizondo v. SBISD. Thompson & Horton believes this request is in the district’s best interests. The firm also believes the issues surrounding this lawsuit are very important and should be the focus of the community rather than who is legal counsel. SBISD is grateful to Thompson & Horton for their legal representation and their integrity in ensuring SBISD’s interests are best represented.”

As of Dec. 22, the district had not announced new counsel.

See here and here for some background. As the story notes, attorney Gilbert filed a response to the lawsuit on August 20, so whatever has come up to cause this change likely happened after that. I don’t want to speculate because I have no basis for it, but this feels a little weird to me. Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it has no practical effect even if it’s not nothing. Maybe we’ll find out more at a later date. For now, noting it for the record.

Lawsuit over Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting tossed

Missed this over the holidays.

A Harris County Judge on Wednesday tossed a lawsuit from Republican commissioners and voters over new county maps that favor Democrats.

Judge Dedra Davis ruled in favor of Harris County, finding that Republican commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey and three voters did not have jurisdiction to sue.

The Republicans’ attorney, Andy Taylor, indicated that he planned to appeal the ruling.

Cagle, Ramsey and the three voters filed the lawsuit against Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and against Harris County last month. The suit alleged that the redistricting map proposed by Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis, known as the Ellis 3 plan, amounts to an unconstitutional gerrymander that would deprive more than 1.1 million voters of their right to vote.

Texas election law staggers county precinct elections every two years. All county commissioners serve four-year terms, but commissioners in even-numbered precincts and those in odd-numbered precincts take place at two-year intervals.

The next election for even-numbered precincts is in 2022. The lawsuit alleges that the Ellis 3 plan shifts more than 1.1 million voters from even-numbered precincts to odd-numbered precincts, depriving them of their right to vote until 2024.

“Plaintiffs submit that there is a very simple explanation for why this occurred,” the lawsuit reads. “Commissioner Ellis wanted to do whatever it would take to draw a new map that would create three…Democratic seats. Thus, the Ellis 3 Plan does just that.”

See here for the background. The lawsuit seemed pretty flimsy on its face, and it was dismissed without comment by District Court Judge Dedra Davis. The plaintiffs, which include Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey, and fan favorite attorney Andy Taylor, have filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court in a last ditch effort to stop the new map from taking effect. The mandamus, which you can see here, makes the following claims:

  • The 2020 census revealed population changes among districts that required redistricting.
  • It was possible to comply with the “one man, one vote” rule by transferring 4% of the county’s population.
  • But Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia chose a plan that moved 48% and overstepped their authority.
  • That plan will deprive 1.1 million people of their right to vote for commissioner in the next election and likely tip the result from Republican to Democrat in one precinct, creating a 4-1 supermajority for Democrats.

As soon as I saw that “moved 48%” of voters claim, I said to myself, where have I seen a statistic like that before? Right here:

The initial Republican proposal for redrawing Texas congressional maps calls for Harris County to once again be split into nine districts, but with major alterations to protect the region’s endangered GOP incumbents.

The shifts mean more than a million voters who live west of downtown Houston would have a different member of Congress representing them.

Ultimately, Democratic-held districts now represented by U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher would all become more heavily blue under the proposed map released Monday by the Texas Senate. Under the proposal, Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Troy Nehls would get more like-minded voters in their districts, too.

The proposal adds a completely new congressional district in west Harris County — District 38 — designed to favor a Republican, stitched together by cutting into four existing districts.

A little back of the envelope math here, we have “more than” a million voters, in a county with just under 2.5 million registered voters, that’s over 40% of voters being put into new districts, for the express purpose of creating a new Republican district in the county and bolstering the Republican caucus in Washington. So, yeah. Cry me a river, fellas.

Rep. Martinez-Fischer sues over CD35

One more federal redistricting lawsuit to add to the pile.

Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer filed a lawsuit today challenging boundaries of the recently redrawn U.S. House District 35.

In the lawsuit, Fischer claims that the redrawn map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and that is discriminates against Latino voters.

“Redistricting is a political process, but it impacts the people who live in our community personally. Our representation in Congress determines not only the resources we receive, but also how quickly our needs are addressed and how they are prioritized,” Fischer said. “By denying Latinos in CD-35 the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, Texas has shortchanged our community of the representation it deserves and has willfully committed a Section 2 violation.

Congressional District 35 spans the I-35 corridor from Austin to San Antonio. The redrawn maps were approved by Governor Greg Abbott on October 25.

“The nature of redistricting is creating winners and losers. District lines change, incumbents gain new constituents, and communities are divided. This is inevitable. What should not be inevitable is the intentional discrimination against Latino, Black, and AAPI voters that we have come to expect from Texas Republicans in redistricting. That is why I am challenging the state of Texas over the loss of a Latino opportunity district in Texas Congressional District 35, in direct violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the lawsuit is here. It is focused entirely on CD35, with the main thrust being that this district went from one that was majority Latino and had more population in Bexar County to one that is not majority Latino and has more population in Travis County. The complaint is fairly straightforward and not too long, so go read it.

As noted by Democracy Docket, this lawsuit has been combined with the others, including the Justice Department lawsuit filed earlier this month. While TMF originally asked for there to be “a permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants implementing any future elections held pursuant to SB 6”, the combined plaintiffs have since agreed (with one exception) to not ask for preliminary injunctions that would prevent the 2022 primaries for taking place, per the Brennan Center. Per Michael Li, the plaintiffs are asking for an October 2022 trial date, with the state of Texas asking for November. The exception are the plaintiffs in the Sen. Powell lawsuit over SD10 (known as the “Brooks plaintiffs”, as the first person listed is Roy Charles Brooks), who are asking for a preliminary injunction that would at least delay the 2022 primaries, since Sen. Powell will almost certainly be voted out next year under the current lines. I think that covers everything for now. Texas Public Radio has more.

Justice Department sues Texas over redistricting maps

Add it to the queue.

The Department of Justice is suing Texas over its new redistricting maps, alleging that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and Black voters while redrawing the state’s political districts this year.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in El Paso, takes aim at Texas’ new maps for Congress and the state House of Representatives. The Biden administration alleges that several of the districts were drawn “with discriminatory intent” to increase the electoral power of the state’s white voters despite massive population growth among racial minorities.

“Our complaint today alleges that the redistricting plans approved by the Texas State Legislature and signed into law by the governor will deny Black and Latino voters an equal opportunity to participate in the voting process and to elect representatives of their choice, in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a news conference.

Texas’ new maps, redrawn this year to reflect the state’s population increases since 2010, are already facing seven legal challenges in state courts. Critics have assailed them as attacks on Texas’ minority voters, noting that the state’s GOP-led Legislature declined to add any new majority-minority districts even as people of color drove 95 percent of the state’s 4 million-person population growth. Hispanic Texans comprised roughly half of that total.

“Our investigation determined that Texas’ redistricting plans will dilute the increased minority voting strength that should have developed from these significant demographic shifts,” Gupta said.

She added that the new maps were adopted through a “rushed process” that allowed for “minimum” public participation. The department is asking the court to prevent any elections from taking place using the new maps; the state’s primaries are scheduled for March 1.

Politico adds some details.

The suit notes that Texas’ past redistricting maps have repeatedly been smacked down by courts over the last several decades. But [Attorney General Merrick] Garland acknowledged during the press conference that this case presents more challenges than past decades because the so-called preclearance requirement, which mandated that jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory election laws get changes approved by either the Department of Justice or a D.C.-based federal court, was gutted by a mid-2010s Supreme Court decision.

“There are two problems: One, it means that we don’t get a chance to look at these things before they go into effect, which is a very significant aspect of our tools, and instead requires that we challenge every case individually,” Garland said. “And second, it flips the burden of proof.”

[…]

The suit takes particular issue with the 23rd Congressional District — a sprawling West Texas seat now held by GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales — accusing Texas Republicans of intentionally eliminating its status as a district where Latinos could elect their candidate of choice.

More than 50 percent of the voting age population in the new 23rd District is Latino, but the Department of Justice claims — as it has in previous litigation against other iterations of this seat — that GOP mapmakers swapped out Latinos who vote regularly with low-propensity Latino voters.

The end result, the suit says, is “an effort to strengthen the voting power of Anglo citizens while preserving the superficial appearance of Latino control.”

The suit also noted the lack of a new Latino opportunity seat in Houston’s Harris County and accused the legislature of having “surgically excised minority communities from the core of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (DFW) by attaching them to heavily Anglo rural counties, some more than a hundred miles away.”

The suit also singles out the new 24th Congressional District, held by freshman GOP Rep. Beth Van Duyne. By reducing the district’s swath of northwest Dallas County, the mapmakers dropped the Latino citizen voting age population from 40 percent to 23 percent. The suit says the map again strengthens the Anglo voting bloc.

GOP mapmakers created three new deep blue seats — in Austin, Houston and Dallas — to accommodate a growing number of left-leaning voters and keep them from overwhelming the red-leaning districts surrounding them. None of those seats have a Latino-majority. Republicans will likely control at least two dozen of the state’s 38 seats under this new map.

In the Houston area, the suit notes that the new 38th Congressional District was drawn “to give Harris County’s shrinking Anglo population control of yet another Congressional seat” even though “most of that population growth occurred within the Latino community.” That seat leans heavily Republican, and the current frontrunner in the GOP primary, Wesley Hunt, is Black.

Garland also urged Congress to restore those preclearance requirements that were effectively stripped out of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, which was decided in 2013.

As noted before, there are multiple lawsuits that have already been filed, and with the exception of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit, which raises different questions, have been combined into one action. Michael Li expects this lawsuit to be assigned to the same three-judge panel as the others as well. He also says this:

Not really much else to say here – if the Senate can ever get around to passing one of the voting rights bills that the House has sent them, it could make the plaintiffs’ case even stronger, but unless that happens it’s hard for me to have a lot of optimism, despite the glimmer that Michael provides. It’s barely possible that the panel could put the March primary on hold, but to say the least I don’t expect that. A copy of the lawsuit is here, and the Trib and the Texas Signal have more.

Cracking Asian-American communities

The Trib explores what the new Congressional maps did to Asian-American communities, mostly but not exclusively in the Houston area.

When Texas lawmakers redrew congressional maps following the 2020 census, they split up Asian American populations in both Harris and Fort Bend counties.

One district line, winding between a local car wash and bar, severs most of the Korean neighborhoods, grocery stores, restaurants and a senior center from the community center itself, which now hangs on the edge of one congressional district while most of its members reside in the next district over.

“It’s like (lawmakers) don’t even know we are here,” said Hyunja Norman, president of the Korean American Voters League, who works out of the center. “If they were thoughtful, they could’ve included the Korean Community Center in (our district). But it’s like they are ignorant of us, or they just don’t care.”

As the Asian American and Pacific Islander population has grown and continued to mobilize politically, especially in the midst of rising hostility and targeted attacks, the community’s desire for representation in Texas and U.S. politics has become stronger. But many now feel their political aspirations became collateral damage in Republican efforts to draw political districts designed to preserve partisan power.

Although they make up only about 5% of Texas’ total population, Asian Texans accounted for a sizable portion of the state’s tremendous growth over the past decade. Nearly one in five new Texans since 2010 are Asian American, according to the census. They were the fastest-growing racial or ethnic voting group in the state, increasing from a population of about 950,000 in 2010 to nearly 1.6 million in 2020.

[…]

In Fort Bend County — which has ranked as the most diverse county in the country multiple times — Lily Trieu’s parents grew scared of even routine errands like grocery shopping or filling their gas tanks. They were afraid to wear masks in public.

And when Asian Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a resolution condemning the Atlanta shootings, almost every Texas Republican voted against it, including Fort Bend County’s U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls.

“This is why representation matters,” Trieu told Texas lawmakers when she testified at redistricting hearings. “This is why splitting our community to dilute our votes is directly denying our opportunity to receive that representation.”

[…]

Previously, more than 9% and 11% of the eligible voter populations in CD-7 and CD-9, respectively, were Asian American. But under the approved plans, CD-7 would increase to 17% Asian American population, covering Houston suburbs, while CD-9 would decrease to 9% Asian population — shifting the majority into one district and lessening its power in another.

A majority of the Asian American population in the suburbs also got redrawn into CD-22, a mostly rural district, decreasing its percentage of the Asian population from more than 15% to 10%.

CD-22 also now includes all of Sugar Land, which is the most Asian town in Texas.

Similar manipulations took place around Dallas. In Collin County, lawmakers approved a map for CD-4 that takes most of the Asian community across Frisco and Plano and attaches it to a district stretching north to the Oklahoma border.

Asian American voters, who would have made up 10.8% of the vote in their old district, comprise just 5.6% of their new one.

Chanda Parbhoo, president of South Asian American Voter Empowerment of Texas, said she had organizations members — mostly from Collin County — submit almost 50 written testimonies against the proposed maps during redistricting hearings.

It still didn’t feel like it was enough, Parbhoo said.

“It makes it really difficult for the (South Asian) community, an emerging political entity, that we haven’t had years of experience (with redistricting),” Parbhoo said. “As soon as a map comes out, then I’ll have to try to explain it to my community, like, ‘This is what’s not fair. These are the numbers.’ Everything moves so fast that the process doesn’t really allow for people to absorb it and to be able to ask questions.”

Ashley Cheng, lead organizer of the Texas AAPI Redistricting Coalition, also testified multiple times as lawmakers redrew voting districts and said the community has various issues at stake that a continued loss of representation will exacerbate.

Cheng said translating documents for Asian American voters is vital for the community to participate in voting. She said during the winter storm, many emergency alerts were only in English and Cheng’s mother, who does not fluently speak English, was left without information at her house.

“We are in a time of history where we’re really rising up as a community and making sure that our political voices are heard,” Cheng said. “Part of that is because our lives are being threatened. There’s been a heightened sense of Islamophobia in the last few years, heightened anti-Asian hate because of all of the political rhetoric around COVID. We have so much in common in a need for representation.”

Those Asian-American communities that are now stuck in CD04 had previously been in CD03, which even after redistricting is becoming more Democratic but which has been moved backwards in the process. The most recent lawsuit filed against the redistricting plans, which has now been combined with most of the other lawsuits, had a focus on Asian-American communities and concerns, though as this story notes the courts have not previously recognized Asian-Americans as a minority population in need of protection at the voting booth. I doubt that will change now, but all you can do is try.

Redistricting litigation update

Reform Austin shows that the state’s legal defense strategy against the various redistricting lawsuits is “You can’t sue us!”

Because of the clear racial gerrymandering, multiple groups are launching legal challenges under the Voting Rights Act. The state has now responded to the one being brought by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mi Familia Vota, the Mexican American Bar Association, and others, asking for a dismissal. Among many other claims, the state alleges that private citizens do not have standing to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Supreme Court has never decided whether Section 2 contains an implied private cause of action,” reads the filing.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act makes it illegal to gerrymander a district for the purpose of suppressing voting power based on race. Strictly political gerrymandering was deemed acceptable in a 2019 Supreme Court case, but the two intentions are often intermingled. The majority of minorities tend to vote Democrat, making any political gerrymandering also racial almost by definition.

The filing by the state does admit that some legal opinions have implied that Section 2 does give private citizens standing to sue but says that these implications are inconsistent with other Supreme Court decisions. The case specifically cited is Alexander vs. Sandoval, which found that regulations enacted under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not confer the right to legal action in a case of non-intentional discrimination. The filing also claims that the Voting Rights Act did not actually create a right to vote in spite of the discrimination, and therefor there is no right to be contested under its statute.

Not a whole lot to say here, as Texas has employed a variation on that strategy in a whole host of lawsuit defenses lately. I don’t know what the district and appeals courts will make of that, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a warm welcome at SCOTUS. Hey, have I mentioned lately that a new and updated federal voting rights law would be a good idea? Just checking.

Reading that article made me go Google news hunting for anything else I could find on redistricting litigation, since not all developments make their way into the sources I read regularly. In doing so I found that all but one of the existing federal cases against the redistricting maps have been consolidated into one, the LULAC v Texas case, as it was the first one filed. You can see all of the filings related to this omnibus case here. When I read the order combining the cases, the motion for which had been partially opposed, I learned that there were two other lawsuits that I had missed the first time around. Let me sum up here. The cases that I knew about that are now under this banner: The LULAC/MALDEF suit, the Voto Latino suit, the federal MALC suit, the Senator Powell lawsuit over SD10, and the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee lawsuit.

The cases that I missed the first time around: The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, representing the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, and Damon James Wilson, formerly an inmate in Dallas County, representing himself as he was counted in one Congressional district while incarcerated but intends to return to his actual domicile in another CD when released, and says he should have been counted in that district.

The one federal case that remains separate from the others is the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit, which the court rejected for consolidation on the grounds that about whether the Lege was allowed to draw maps at all, and not about the composition of the new maps.

So, for those of you keeping score at home, we now have two federal lawsuits challenging different aspects of Texas redistricting, and one state lawsuit that focuses on the county line rule and how it was allegedly violated in Cameron County in the drawing on HDs 35 and 37. You’ll be quizzed on this at a later date, so please make sure you take good notes.

Galveston adopts all-white Commissioners Court map

In case you missed it.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

Dozens of residents crowded into a small county annex building Friday afternoon to urge, beg, lecture and warn commissioners against approving new precinct maps that dissenters called unfair, undemocratic and potentially illegal.

The protest, mostly by county Democrats and Black residents, culminated with a speech by Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the only Democrat and only minority member of the court, who said the maps would put people of his precinct at an electoral disadvantage.

“It’s about the people of Precinct 3 being able to pick the candidate of their choice,” Holmes said. “It’s not just an election, this is their life. They fought this for years.”

Holmes told the court the maps were drawn with a “discriminatory purpose” and presented his own versions of new precincts that would maintain the status quo in the county.

“We are not going to go quietly into the night,” Holmes said. “We are going to rage, rage, rage until justice is done.”

A majority of the court wasn’t moved by the outpouring of opposition, however.

Commissioners voted 3-1 to approve a precinct map that changes the balance of political power in the county. The map redraws political lines to give Republican voters a majority in each of four precincts.

Holmes’ Precinct 3 now contains a majority of Democratic voters based on results of recent partisan elections. The other three precincts already contained mostly Republican voters.

County Judge Mark Henry and commissioners Darrell Apffel and Joe Giusti voted in favor of the map. Holmes voted against it. Commissioner Ken Clark was absent. In a text, Clark said he was out of town because of a pre-planned family trip.

The county was compelled to draw new precinct lines to make population adjustments based on the 2020 census. Commissioners are required by law to have roughly equal-sized precincts by population.

Commissioners gave themselves an option to vote on two maps designed by a Republican Party strategist hired earlier this year. One map made minimal changes to precinct lines that mostly maintained the status quo. The second, the one approved Friday, makes extensive change.

The approved map doesn’t just change the party makeup of the county’s precincts. It also changes their racial makeup.

By the county’s own analysis, the new map would divide minority populations so that every precinct is mostly made up of white voters.

Holmes is Black, and his precinct is the only one where a majority of voters are Black or Hispanic.

You can see the proposed maps here, with Map 2 being what was adopted and Map 1 being close to what currently exists. Ari Berman, who notes a lot of similar activity by Republicans going on around the country, brings more details.

For more than two decades Holmes has represented a district running through the center of Galveston County where Blacks and Hispanics comprise a majority of eligible voters. But under the new maps approved by three white, male GOP county commissioners, voters of color would make up just 26 percent of eligible voters in Holmes’ new district, reducing the minority vote by a staggering 28 points and likely dooming his re-election chances in 2024.

Such a move would have been unthinkable and illegal before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, ruling that states like Texas and jurisdictions like Galveston County with a long history of discrimination no longer needed to approve voting changes and electoral boundaries with the federal government. As a result of that decision—and the failure by Democrats to overcome four GOP filibusters in order to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights and outlawing extreme gerrymandering, such as the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—Republicans are erasing decades of long-fought gains for voters of color, returning parts of the South to a pre-1965 status quo where conservative whites have effectively denied political representation to previously disenfranchised communities of color and are preventing major demographic changes from leading to shifts in political power.

[…]

Some of the GOP’s top mapmakers are behind the strategy to eliminate representation for communities of color. In 2011, Galveston County hired the firm run by GOP gerrymandering guru Thomas Hofeller to redraw districts for the county commission, justices of the peace, and constable offices. Hofeller practically invented modern gerrymandering and was well-known for drawing maps that aggressively helped Republicans.

Along with his partner Dale Oldham, Hofeller drew congressional districts in North Carolina that were struck down by the courts for racial and partisan gerrymandering. He also urged the Trump administration to add a question about US citizenship to the 2020 census so that the GOP could draw legislative districts that “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” he wrote.

The districts Hofeller drew in Galveston were blocked in 2012 by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act for reducing representation for communities of color. But two months after the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the VRA in June 2013, Galveston enacted the justice of the peace and constable districts that were previously deemed discriminatory, becoming one of the first jurisdictions in the country to target communities of color following the Court’s decision.

Hofeller passed away in 2018, but Galveston County hired Oldham to draw its commissioner districts in 2021. Holmes said he had “minimal interaction” with Oldham, but when they first spoke Oldham asked Holmes to draw the map he wanted for his district, which Holmes thought was odd because Oldham, not Holmes, was the mapmaker. Holmes sent Oldham a rough map of the district he wanted, but when Oldham traveled to Galveston to meet with the commissioners the maps he showed Holmes looked nothing like the one he suggested. “You didn’t draw the map I asked you to draw,” Holmes said he told Oldham. One map diluted the minority vote in Holmes’ district by adding a predominantly white area along the Gulf Coast, while another completely dismantled his district by taking away Galveston and other diverse, Democratic-leaning areas and concentrating his precinct in the heavily Republican and overwhelmingly white northern parts of the county.

Holmes objected to both maps, but when he talked to Oldham next over Zoom, “he showed me the same damn maps again,” Holmes said.

Commissioner Holmes has urged his constituents to contact the Justice Department and ask them to intervene. He has talked about filing a lawsuit, and even though I don’t have much faith in that vehicle these days, I hope he does. I don’t know what else there is to do. I’m sure all of the Harris County Republicans who have complained about the “radical changes” made to our map will be quick to condemn this one as well. Houston Public Media has more.

ACLU and others sue over new redistricting maps

The count is now seven.

Civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging new Texas state legislative and congressional district plans as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders violating both the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. The suit details an inadequate redistricting process that lacked transparency and led to discriminatory voting maps that dilute the political power of communities of color, particularly Black, Latino, and Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), brought the case on behalf of the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee, OCA-Greater Houston, the North Texas Chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Americans Public Affairs Association, Emgage and 13 individual plaintiffs in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division.

“Texas’ latest gerrymanders seek to blunt the rightful political power of fast-growing populations of Latino, Black and Asian American and Pacific Islanders voters by carving up the chance to elect their preferred candidates to the United States Congress, the Texas House of Representatives, and the Texas Senate,” Allison Riggs, Co-Executive Director and Chief Counsel for Voting Rights with SCSJ. “This intentional discrimination of voters of color in clear violation of the VRA and U.S. Constitution cannot stand.”

The Fair Maps Texas Action Committee includes the ACLU of Texas, Clean Elections Texas, League of Women Voters of Texas, Our Vote Texas, National Council of Jewish Women-Greater Dallas Section, Texans Against Gerrymandering, and Common Cause Texas.

“Today, the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee is honored to join our partners from across the state to challenge the unconstitutional district maps recently passed by the State of Texas. Lawmakers have willfully ignored the rich diversity of our growing state and have instead chosen to draw maps that discriminate against voters of color,” said organizations from the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee in a joint statement today. “From the very start of this legislative process, we worked to bring diverse people together so that all marginalized communities receive fair representation. Despite our best efforts to advocate for a fair and open redistricting process, the politicians in charge chose to shut the public out in order to force through blatantly gerrymandered maps. Now, we will take action together to challenge these unlawful maps because our democracy is threatened.”

[…]

The complaint specifically seeks to remedy discriminatory districts in many of Texas’ fastest-growing cities and suburban areas, where the political power of communities of color is exploited to the benefit of more conservative white areas. For example, the lawsuit identifies how Texas’ state House maps unfairly crack AAPI voters in Fort Bend and Collin counties among multiple districts, while House Districts 54 and 55 in Bell County brazenly split the city of Killeen, where 40% of residents are Black. The complaint also focuses on state Senate and congressional maps where new districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metros intentionally divide AAPI, Black, and Latino voters. The suit also points out that Texas’ congressional maps create two new majority-white districts in a state where 95% of population growth stems from communities of color.

That’s from the ACLU press release. I’d gotten an email with a notice of the video conference they had about this on Tuesday, but as of Wednesday the only news story I saw about this was this one in Newsweek. Sometimes these things take a couple of days for that. Anyway, you can see a copy of the complaint here. It is limited to Congress and the two legislative chambers, so no claims about the SBOE.

The other litigation so far includes the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit, the LULAC/MALDEF suit, the Voto Latino suit, the two MALC suits, and most recently the Senator Powell lawsuit over SD10. All but one of the MALC lawsuits, which is specifically about State House districts in Cameron County and alleges a violation of the county rule, are in federal court. I believe this is the first one to include a focus on Asian-American voters, but I’d have to go back and take a closer look at the other complaints. Beyond that, I would be really excited to have an attorney who has some familiarity with the law in this area take a look at all these actions and tell me how they are different and whether any of it matters as far as the courts are concerned. Until then, this is what we know. Reform Austin, which also rounds up all the lawsuits, has more.

Republicans sue over new Commissioners Court map

Hilarious.

Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey have filed a voting rights lawsuit in state court in hopes of halting a Harris County redistricting plan they claim strips more than 1.1 million people of their right to vote in 2022.

Cagle and Ramsey, who are in the political minority in county government, lost ground in the redistricting plan their three political opponents supported, as Cagle’s Precinct 4 was redrawn last month to become majority Democrat.

Cagle and Ramsey announced Tuesday they were suing Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the county itself, but indicated through their attorney they see Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia as equally culpable of depriving voters’ rights. Three fellow plaintiffs who stood with the commissioners at a news conference were identified in court documents as registered voters and ethnic minorities.

One plantiff, Ranya Khanoyan, a senior in ROTC at Klein Cain High School, voted for the first time in November, but she would not be able to vote for Precinct 4 commissioner in the March primary or November election because the plan moves her to Precinct 3, which does not have an election until 2024.

“I’m not willing to look Ranya who just turned 18 in the face and say, ‘You know, sweetie, you’re going to have to wait til 2024 to vote,’” said the commissioners’ attorney, Andy Taylor. “The right to vote is sacred.”

See here for the background. Sure does suck to be on the other side, doesn’t it, fellas? And hey, welcome back to the spotlight, Andy Taylor. With Jared Woodfill filing all the crazy political lawsuits these days, I’d almost forgotten you existed.

My initial reaction, when I saw the early version of this story, was that this lawsuit was ridiculous on its face. If “I don’t get to vote for County Commissioner in the next election” is the standard, then it would be impossible to ever move a voter from, say, Precinct 1 to Precinct 4. I’d be willing to be that if we went back to past redistrictings, like the 2011 redistricting, we had some motion from an odd-numbered district to an even-numbered one, or vice versa. It would mean that the next time HISD has to redraw boundaries, it could only move voters between districts that are on the same four-year schedule. I have a hard time believing that’s a constitutional or statutory right that’s being violated here. At least one person agrees with me:

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the commissioners’ lawsuit takes a creative approach but added, “This isn’t going anywhere.”

“The premise of it is that somehow because of staggered terms for county commissioners a person’s constitutional rights are being violated because they’ll have to wait two years to vote,” Jones said.

Those who might have to wait this time around because of the new map would vote in 2024 and 2028, he said. They wouldn’t lose their right to vote in Jones’ view. Like other southern politicians following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which cut out key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the members of commissioners court had much more flexibility in reshaping districts in 2021 than in 2011, 2001 or 1991. The did not need preclearance to make the changes.

Jones likened the Republicans’ announcement this week to the Democratic redistricting lawsuits against the Texas House and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This is much more political posturing rather than legal strategy,” he said. “This is more a negative reaction to the extreme partisan gerrymandering by Rodney Ellis, Lina Hidalgo and Adrian Garcia.”

Jones’ colleague at Rice, Robert Stein, agreed that the county’s new district boundaries undoubtedly disadvantage both Republican commissioners and many of their supporters.

“There is great irony in the fact the two white Republican males are suing the County Judge over the county commissioners redistricting plan,” Stein said. “For the last 100 years Blacks and Hispanics have argued, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, that the partisan drawing of legislative districts prevented them from voting for the candidates of their choice.”

This was filed in state court, so some Harris County judge will get to deal with it. There’s no federal standard for partisan gerrymandering, because the concept was too hard for John Roberts to deal with, but state courts could find that such a thing had happened. I don’t know that the Republicans in Austin will be all that thrilled in that event. I will of course keep an eye on this.

Justice Department sues Texas over the voter suppression law

Specifically, they are challenging a couple of specific provisions of the law.

The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday sued Texas over its new voting law, expanding its effort to challenge Republican-backed measures passed in state legislatures.

The lawsuit, brought by the DOJ’s civil rights division in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, challenges provisions in the Texas law, known as SB 1, that place new procedural requirements on voting by mail and restrict the assistance voters with disabilities or those who struggle to read and write are able to receive in filling out a ballot.

Those provisions “deny eligible voters meaningful assistance in the voting booth and require rejection of mail ballot materials for immaterial errors or omissions,” the department’s complaint alleges.

The lawsuit is the second one the DOJ’s civil rights division has brought this year challenging a state law placing new restrictions on voting. The department sued Georgia in June over a law the federal government alleged disproportionately harmed voters of color.

[…]

Unlike the case against Georgia, the DOJ’s suit against Texas was not brought under the section of the Voting Rights Act that focuses on voter discrimination based on race.

Rather, the complaint filed Thursday focuses on a section of the law requiring voter assistance for those who need it based on “blindness, disability or inability to read or write.” The suit was also filed under a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning people from being denied the right to vote based on clerical errors or omissions that are “not material” in determining if someone is qualified to vote.

The complaint does mention the history of voting discrimination in Texas and the growth of minority populations in the state in recent years, but the claims based on race or ethnicity all have to do with the restrictions the law places on help made available to voters who speak languages other than English.

The Texas law confines the role of voting “assistors” to reading the ballot or helping to mark the ballot, barring individuals who provide help from “answering a voter’s questions, explaining the voting process, paraphrasing complex language, and providing other forms of voting assistance that some qualified voters require to cast an informed and effective vote,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also takes aim at measures that require voters to provide an identification number, such as a driver’s license or election identification certificate, in requesting a mail-in ballot.

“Conditioning the right to cast a mail ballot on a voter’s ability to recall and recite the identification number provided on an application for voter registration months or years before will curtail fundamental voting rights without advancing any legitimate state interest,” the lawsuit alleges.

It’s been a little while since the initial flurry of lawsuits against SB1, long enough that I had forgotten that there were already six lawsuits over this thing: Two lawsuits filed before the bill was signed, by Harris County and a coalition of voters, one filed in Austin and one in San Antonio; a trio of lawsuits filed right after it was signed, one each in federal court by Democracy Docket and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and one in state court by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and one a month later, which is to now say a month ago, by Mi Familia Vota. As I said at the time, it was not clear to me why the Lawyers’ Committee one was filed in state court. Those lawsuits were all presented as being broader claims about racial discrimination, much like that DOJ lawsuit against Georgia, while this one is more focused on a couple of specific items in the law. I don’t know if that was a strategic choice or just a recognition that the broader issues were already being addressed.

The Trib adds a few more details.

The state has long allowed voters who need assistance casting ballots to have someone help them, as long as those assisting don’t try to influence the actual votes. SB 1 places new constraints on what those assistants may do. They cannot answer questions, clarify translations, explain the voting process or paraphrase complex language, the federal lawsuit says.

The law also creates potential criminal penalties for people who assist voters. A person assisting a voter is required to fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship to that voter. They must also recite an expanded oath — now under the penalty of perjury — that states they did not “pressure or coerce” the voter into picking them for assistance.

The oath no longer allows explicitly answering the voter’s questions. Instead, an assistant must pledge to limit their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”

The limits on assistance will hit particularly hard voters with limited English proficiency and those with disabilities, the lawsuit contends.

“There is a history of discrimination against voters with disabilities in Texas,” the lawsuit claims, noting estimates that 28% of Texans have conditions impairing their mobility, cognition or vision.

The suit also takes aim at SB 1’s new rules for mail-in voting. Texas traditionally has placed more limits on mail-in voting than other states. The legitimacy of mail-in ballots was largely determined by comparing signatures on applications and ballots.

SB 1 created new ID requirements. Voters who want to be mailed a ballot must provide their driver’s license number or, if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number when they send in an application for one.

They then must provide the same numbers on the envelope used to return their completed ballot. Critics point out that many voters — particularly elderly applicants — may have their votes thrown out simply because they didn’t remember which ID number they used the first time, or have lost their ID card.

The law, set to take effect in time for the 2022 primary elections, already faced legal challenges generally argue it will disproportionately impact voters of colors and voters with disabilities. Those challenges, along with Thursday’s lawsuit, could delay its implementation.

Here’s where I shrug and say that I have no idea what the courts will make of this. I will also remind everyone that the Texas voter ID law specifically excluded mail voters from needing to provide ID because at the time more Republicans voted by mail, and they had no interest in inconveniencing their own voters. Now that Democrats also use mail ballots, that consideration no longer applies. The Chron, Reform Austin, and Daily Kos have more.

Sen. Powell sues over SD10

Number six and counting.

Sen. Beverly Powell

Tarrant County state Sen. Beverly Powell filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the state Senate redistricting plan, marking the latest court challenge to Texas’ Republican-drawn political maps that secure the GOP’s grip on power for the next decade but blunt the voting strength of nonwhite voters who fueled the state’s population surge.

The legal team for Powell and six other Tarrant County citizens argued the Texas Senate redraw dilutes minority voting strength in the Democrat’s district, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and U.S. Constitution, according to the suit filed in federal court in Austin.

The Senate’s redistricting plan dramatically transforms Powell’s Senate District 10 into a district favorable for a Republican candidate by moving much of the nonwhite population into a large swath of rural areas, including Parker and Johnson counties. Others are packed into the nearby Senate District 23 represented by Dallas Democrat Royce West.

“The adopted Senate map is a brutal attack on Tarrant County voters,” Powell said in a news release. “The map cracks historic Tarrant County minority neighborhoods and submerges hundreds of thousands of Tarrant County voters into rural counties and suburban districts. It is an intentional racially discriminatory scheme to undermine and destroy the voting rights of those I am elected to serve.”

[…]

The previous iteration of Senate District 10 was drawn by courts after a judge found it in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The GOP-led redistricting effort this year put in place a district that changed District 10 from a Fort Worth-centric district inside Tarrant County to a sprawling district that increased in geographic size by at least tenfold.

It previously favored President Joe Biden by eight points, according to election returns. But the redrawn district would have gone for Republican Donald Trump by 16 points, a 24-point swing that likely dooms Powell’s hopes for re-election.

The remap shrinks the share of Hispanic, Black and Asian eligible voters in District 10 while increasing the share of white eligible voters, from 54% to 62%.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys asked the federal court to block the map, with respect to Powell’s district, from being used in any elections and to set in motion a plan for new boundaries. The suit names Gov. Greg Abbott and newly appointed Texas Secretary of State John Scott as defendants.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here. The other litigation so far includes the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit, the LULAC/MALDEF suit, the Voto Latino suit, and the two MALC suits. As a reminder, the current map with SD10 entirely in Tarrant County can be seen here, and the new map with SD10 sprawling out into multiple rural counties can be seen here. The question for the short term is whether one or more of these plaintiffs can get a temporary restraining order against one or more maps, thus potentially delaying the primaries. I don’t think that is likely to happen – there may be a TRO, but I would expect it to be stayed by the appeals court – but we’ll see. A press release from the Lone Star Project is here, and the Star-Telegram has more.

A redistricting lawsuit twofer from MALC

One federal, one state.

The Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House has opened a second front in the legal war over the state’s new political maps.

The caucus on Wednesday turned to the state courts to challenge the constitutionality of the new state House map, arguing it violates state requirements for breaking county lines in drawing up the chamber’s 150 districts. The move comes on the heels of two lawsuits filed against the newly approved maps in federal court. The caucus on Wednesday simultaneously filed another federal lawsuit alleging the state’s new maps were drawn with discriminatory intent and violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

Texas redistricting fights have typically played out in federal courts, which decade after decade have found that lawmakers, often intentionally, flouted federal protections for voters of color in redistricting. Filed in Austin, MALC framed its federal lawsuit as an effort to “redress once again Texas’s sordid pattern of racial discrimination.”

However, the lawsuit filed in state district court in Travis County is tied to language in the state Constitution, which states that legislators drawing 150 districts for the Texas House are supposed to keep whole counties that have sufficient population to make up one House district.

MALC’s challenge centers on the reconfiguration of Cameron County in the Rio Grande Valley, which breaks the county line twice to create three different districts — only one of which is wholly contained within the county. The state’s “county line rule,” MALC argues, would require two districts to be drawn within Cameron with the remaining population connected to a single neighboring district, as was the case under the map the state used for the last decade.

The new lines in Cameron, drawn over the objections of lawmakers who represent the affected areas, would afford Republicans a newly competitive state House seat in an area currently dominated by Democrats. In its federal lawsuit, MALC alleges the lines would also “severely dilute” the ability of Latinos and the Spanish-speaking community in the area to elect their preferred candidates.

The swap and the objections to it are noted in this post. This is the first state court lawsuit against the redistricting effort, though the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit will find its way there as well. The claim seems pretty straightforward. According to the population report for the State House map, HD37 has 164K voters in Cameron County and 20K in Willacy, while HD35 has 70K in Cameron and 123K in Hidalgo. All 186K voters in HD35 are in Cameron. The suit claims that according to the county rule in the state constitution, HD37 should be entirely within Cameron County, and those Willacy County voters would need to be swapped out, presumably to HD35 where about 20K of its voters would have to be in HD37. Here’s a quote from the lawsuit:

A key principle in both the plain language of the Texas Constitution itself and the Texas Supreme Court’s interpretation of the county line rule in light of Reynolds, is that for any county which has enough population for one or more representatives and also has a left-over surplus that cannot be wholly contained in the county, that surplus may only be joined in one single representative district with area from another contiguous county or counties.

Emphasis mine. I will note that HDs 35 (57-42 for Biden in 2020 and 38 (62-37 Biden) are reasonably Dem-friendly, while HD37 (51-48 Biden) is less so. Now, Willacy County was roughly 56-44 for Biden, so how Dem-friendly the HD35 portion of Cameron County is makes a difference here. I have to assume it’s better for Dems than the Willacy portion is, because otherwise the Republicans wouldn’t have bothered. Maybe they could still squeeze HD37 in a favorable way for themselves if it had to be entirely within Cameron, but in the end they didn’t. So this could be a difference maker, if the plaintiffs win.

On the federal side:

In its federal lawsuit, MALC challenges the new maps for Congress, the Texas House and the State Board of Education, saying they are intentionally discriminatory and mired in illegal racial gerrymanders. The caucus also raises specific claims on a litany of districts where they allege the Legislature packed and cracked communities of color to limit their electoral impact.

“The plans adopted by the State not only failed to increase Latino and minority opportunities for representation, they actually decreased them while increasing the number of districts in which Anglos form a majority of the eligible voter population,” the MALC complaint reads. “This turns the concept of representative democracy on its head.”

Echoing the two federal lawsuits already in the pipeline, MALC is also challenging the Legislature’s refusal to create additional districts in which Hispanic voters would control elections. Republicans, who had complete control over the redistricting process this year, declined to create those districts even as they reconfigured the congressional map to include the two additional U.S. House seats the state gained, the most of any state in this year’s reapportionment, because of its explosive growth.

See here and here for the other federal lawsuits. I don’t know what new MALC is bringing to the table, and as discussed I don’t have much faith in the federal courts on this matter, but I welcome all comers. The Statesman has more.

A brief update on the Gutierrez/Eckhardt redistricting lawsuit

First news we’ve had in awhile.

Plaintiff: Democratic state Sens. Roland Gutierrez and Sarah Eckhardt

What the lawsuit argues: Ahead of lawmakers’ third special session, two Democratic state senators sued to block the Legislature from redistricting in a special session this year. The senators argued the Texas Constitution requires that redistricting be done in a regular session that won’t happen until 2023.

If successful, the federal lawsuit by Sens. Eckhardt of Austin and Gutierrez of San Antonio, with political organization Tejano Democrats, would require judges to create interim redistricting plans for the Legislature to use in the 2022 election cycle.

What’s next: The case, filed Sept. 1 in federal court in Austin, has been assigned to a three-judge panel of Reagan appointee Jerry Smith, Obama appointee Robert Pitman and Trump appointee Jeffrey Brown.

State lawyers have asked the court to consolidate the LULAC case with the senators’ case, and asked the court to abstain from a state matter. The officials also argued the plaintiffs misinterpreted the state constitution and cannot challenge the old maps.

On Tuesday, both sides indicated that the plaintiffs intend to pursue similar claims in state court. The three-judge panel then ordered the parties to file a joint status report “when they have determined the impact of the litigation in state court on this case.”

See here for the background on this lawsuit. The LULAC case is the one filed in mid-October after the maps were passed but before they were signed into law, with LULAC and several other groups as plaintiffs, and with MALDEF doing the filing. That lawsuit challenged all of the maps, including the Congressional map – the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit only challenged the legislative maps, as they are the ones that are covered by the state constitution.

What this sounds like to me is that the two Senators will file a new lawsuit in a state court, and action on the federal side will be put on pause until there is some kind of ruling there, at which point the three-judge panel will consider what its next steps are. I’ll keep an eye out for any news about that filing.

On a side note, this story also had a brief update about the Voto Latino lawsuit. That one was also assigned to a three-judge panel, and it too had an Obama appointee, a Trump appointee…and Jerry Smith. Who was involved in (I believe) the consolidated redistricting cases from the last decade. Do they keep him on ice just for these situations, or is is the luck of the draw? I am mystified. Reform Austin has more.

Redistricting lawsuit #2 filed

This one focuses on just the Congressional map.

An organization affiliated with Eric Holder, who was attorney general in the Obama administration, has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the state’s GOP-drawn redistricting map for Congress on behalf of a Latino rights group and 13 Texas voters.

Filed Monday in an Austin federal court, the lawsuit claims mapmakers in the Texas Legislature improperly drew political districts in Senate Bill 6 that increased the power of white voters even though 95% of the state’s growth last decade was fueled by people of color.

That population growth made Texas the only state to gain two congressional seats after the 2020 census.

“Yet Senate Bill 6 appropriates those additional districts — and more — for white Texans,” the lawsuit argued. “Senate Bill 6 does so by packing and cracking communities of color along racial lines to ensure that those groups’ growing populations will not translate to increased political influence.”

Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said the congressional districts drawn by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott violate the Voting Rights Act.

[…]

The new lawsuit, filed Monday on behalf of Voto Latino and 13 voters, asks U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman to overturn the congressional districts and order a new map to be drawn that:

• Adds two majority Latino districts in South and West Texas, from the border region north to Bexar County and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

• Improves the voting strength of Latinos in Congressional District 23, which stretches along the border with Mexico from San Antonio to just east of El Paso.

• Adds a majority Latino or majority Black-Latino district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

• Creates another majority Latino or majority Black-Latino district in the Houston area.

The lawsuit also complained that Congressional District 35, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio along a narrow strip of Interstate 35, improperly combines far-flung Latino communities into a district with a Latino voting-age population of just under 48%.

A statement from Voto Latino is here, and a copy of the lawsuit is here. The National Redistricting Action Fund, a non-profit affiliate of the NDRC, did the filing. As noted, there is a separate lawsuit filed by MALDEF that challenges the legislative and SBOE maps in addition to the Congressional map. I assume that the NRDC and NRAF focused on the Congressional map because the NDRC’s mission is more of a national one. You know the drill here – the plaintiffs will have tons of evidence on their side, but unless there’s a new federal law to address this, SCOTUS ain’t gonna care. There’s also a chance this could delay the 2022 primaries, though again I would not bet on it. We’ll see what happens. Spectrum News has more.

The new maps are now official

Expect further lawsuits to follow.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday approved Texas’ new political maps for the state’s congressional, legislative and State Board of Education districts, according to Texas Legislature Online.

The maps were drawn to keep Texas Republicans in power for the next decade. They simultaneously diminish the power of voters of color — despite new census numbers pointing to Texans of color as the main force behind the state’s population growth.

The new districts will be used for the first time in next year’s primary and general elections, barring any court interventions.

The redistricting process, which happens every 10 years after new census data is released, is complicated and contentious. Legal battles have already begun, with one early lawsuit raising various claims that the new districts unfairly and illegally discriminate against voters of color. More legal challenges are expected to pop up in the near future.

That’s the main story; what follows is a listing of the stories for each milestone in the process during the last special session. The main points to take away here are that we’re going to have a regular March primary because there’s no reason not to, and there’s still time for a federal voting rights law to be passed. It would likely not have any immediate action, unless a plaintiff in the current or a future lawsuit could get a restraining order based on it, but it would make it easier to eventually get a map or maps thrown out in court. Would have been better in every conceivable way to have had such legislation in place two months ago, but here we are. There will be more lawsuits regardless, and we’ll see where they go and how long they take to get there. Reform Austin has more.