Voting Rights Controversies Wreak Havoc in Texas

Texas is once again embroiled in a controversy surrounding redistricting maps redrawn to reflect growth in the Texs population since the last census.

As things now stand, there are no approved district maps, and three separate federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, are racing to untangle the mess that threatens to delay the state's March 6 primary.

"Candidates don't know if there's a district for them to run in. Counties are scrambling to figure out where they're going to get money to pay for a second primary if we have one. Political parties are wrestling with the possibility of having to move their conventions at great cost. It's a mess," said Michael Li, a redistricting expert, who has been closely watching the Texas mess.

How did it come to this?

When the latest census came out in February 2011, it revealed  that Texas' population had exploded by more than 4 million people, and that the state would get four more congressional seats. The increase in population was dominated by Hispanics and African-Americans.

As required by federal law, the state legislature set to work to draw new districting maps for the state's legislative and congressional seats that would reflect the new census numbers.

But when the new maps were released last spring, minority groups and Democrats were enraged at the results and charged that the Republican-dominated legislature had drawn up maps that did not reflect the growth in minority representation.

Two Sets of Maps

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires Texas and other states with a history of discrimination  to get approval or "preclearance" from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C., for any election-related changes.

Texas chose to submit the maps directly to the D.C. court and argued that the newly drawn maps did not diminish the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.

The D.C. court recognized that the issue of redistricting  and the legislature's redrawn maps would probably not be resolved in time for deadlines related to the 2012 election, so it asked a panel of federal judges in Texas to draw up interim maps to be used for the upcoming election.

Sparks flew when the court-drawn maps were released: Republicans claimed  they favored more Democratic and minority districts.

Path to the Supreme Court

The Texas' Attorney General Greg Abott, a Republican, asked the Supreme Court to block the court-drawn maps, arguing that federal judges should have paid some deference and made fewer changes to the maps drawn up by the legislature.

The Supreme Court  temporarily blocked the maps  and agreed to take up the case on an expedited schedule. Oral arguments will be heard Jan. 9. The decision  caused a near meltdown in Texas, as candidates had no idea where and when to file.

"The Supreme Court, at a minimum, is likely to clarify the standards that courts use in drawing interim maps," said Li.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine, who also runs the popular Election Law Blog, said that the Supreme Court might send the case back to the lower courts to draw new districts under new standards.

Some have suggested that the Supreme Court could go further and look at the continued viability of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Hasen doesn't believe it will. "It's unlikely that the court would use this case as an opportunity to consider the constitutionality of the preclearance law, but it could well come before the court in the next few years."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave an impassioned speech this week in defense of  Section 5:

"To those who argue that Section 5 is no longer necessary," he said, according to  his prepared remarks, "we still need this critical tool to combat discrimination and safeguard the right to vote."

Hasen said  the Supreme Court's decision could have serious political ramifications for Texas.

"It is potentially very important if we have a close contest for the control of the U.S. House, because up to three or four Democratic seats could be in play, depending  on how the redistricting is conducted."

The Supreme Court is expected to rule within weeks of the argument.