Elec­toral equal­ity

Af­ter yet an­other ju­di­cial de­feat, Texas should stop wast­ing tax dol­lars on ap­peals.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

As we write this, the en­tire Texas coast is hun­ker­ing down from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, and hop­ing to avoid the wrath of a nat­u­ral disas­ter. But for Texas Repub­li­cans, a po­lit­i­cal disas­ter of their own mak­ing al­ready has struck. In just the past cou­ple of weeks, they’ve suf­fered a tri­fecta of set­backs.

On Aug. 15, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in San An­to­nio ruled that the Leg­is­la­ture’s most re­cent at­tempt at drawing bound­aries for con­gres­sional dis­tricts vi­o­lated the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion and the Vot­ing Rights Act by in­ten­tion­ally dis­crim­i­nat­ing against mi­nori­ties. It or­dered that District 27, rep­re­sented by Blake Far­en­thold, R-Cor­pus Christi, and District 35, rep­re­sented by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, be re­done.

Then on Aug. 23, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gon­za­les Ramos, ruled that the latest in­car­na­tion of the state’s voter ID law — Se­nate Bill 5 — still doesn’t pass con­sti­tu­tional muster be­cause the law was drafted with the in­tent of dis­crim­i­nat­ing against Texas’s Latino and African-Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. It is com­pa­ra­ble to a “poll tax” on mi­nori­ties, she said.

The fi­nal blow was struck on Aug. 24. The same three-judge panel in San An­to­nio or­dered law­mak­ers to re­draw nine leg­isla­tive dis­tricts in four coun­ties — Bell, Dal­las, Nue­ces, and Tar­rant — due to “in­ten­tional dis­crim­i­na­tion” by race. Fur­ther, the Court or­dered that both the con­gres­sional and state House bound­aries be re­drawn in time for the 2018 midterm elec­tions and gave At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton three days to de­cide if the state will do the job. If not, the Court will un­der­take the reme­dies it­self.

The strug­gle be­tween state of­fi­cials and the courts be­gan in 2011 when the GOP-led Leg­is­la­ture drew new con­gres­sional and Texas House district maps fol­low­ing the 2010 Cen­sus, and shortly there­after passed one of the most re­stric­tive voter ID laws in the coun­try. Over the past six years, the Leg­is­la­ture has writ­ten and rewrit­ten these laws only to have each it­er­a­tion over­turned by fed­eral courts. Four losses for re­dis­trict­ing; five in­junc­tions against voter ID. As of 2015, the state had spent at least $8 mil­lion lit­i­gat­ing this string of losses.

De­spite the dis­mal record, Pax­ton rushed to file an ap­peal of the latest rul­ings. He is ask­ing the U.S. Supreme Court to over­turn the re­dis­trict­ing de­ci­sion and to is­sue an in­junc­tion ex­empt­ing Texas from hav­ing to pro­duce a new map for the midterm elec­tions. Given the un­equiv­o­cal judg­ment of in­ten­tional dis­crim­i­na­tion in of all of these rul­ings, con­tin­u­ing to ap­peal is a risky propo­si­tion. Judge Ramos im­plied that the state’s his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tion may jus­tify re­newed fed­eral su­per­vi­sion of its vot­ing laws, a re­quire­ment that hasn’t ex­isted since 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the pre­clear­ance pro­vi­sions of the Vot­ing Rights Act. Texas has proven that we’re in need of over­sight.

The leg­is­la­tors who drew these maps may tell them­selves that the pur­pose was purely par­ti­san, that they were try­ing to pre­vent Democrats from win­ning any elec­tions, which is per­fectly le­gal ac­cord­ing to past rul­ings by the U.S. Supreme Court. And they may de­clare that the voter ID law is to pro­tect the in­tegrity of the elec­tion process, de­spite the fact that in-per­son voter fraud is es­sen­tially non-ex­is­tent. But these po­si­tions get harder and harder to de­fend af­ter los­ing so many le­gal chal­lenges.

We have no rea­son to think that leg­is­la­tors who voted for these laws hold big­otry in their hearts, but we can clearly see big­otry in their ac­tions. That’s what “in­ten­tional dis­crim­i­na­tion” means. Nor do we have any rea­son to be­lieve that the zeal with which Pax­ton and Gov. Greg Ab­bott con­tinue to ap­peal these rul­ings sug­gests an in­tent to dis­crim­i­nate against Latino and African-Amer­i­can Tex­ans. What we can know is that too much money has been wasted de­fend­ing the in­de­fen­si­ble, and that these laws do sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to the state’s rep­u­ta­tion and fu­ture pros­per­ity. Texas con­tin­ues to lead the na­tion in pop­u­la­tion growth, and in the last cen­sus, Lati­nos and African-Amer­i­cans con­trib­uted nearly 90 per­cent of that growth. We be­lieve it is in our state’s best in­ter­est to give up the ap­peals and fol­low the courts’ rul­ings in pro­mot­ing fair and eq­ui­table elec­tions for all of our cit­i­zens.

In the longer term, the Leg­is­la­ture should con­sider es­tab­lish­ing an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to draw district bound­aries. A dozen states have al­ready taken that route, es­tab­lish­ing pan­els with vary­ing de­grees of au­ton­omy from their leg­is­la­tures. Creat­ing truly com­pet­i­tive dis­tricts in which can­di­dates must de­fend their po­si­tions is the best way to en­sure that vot­ers have real choices. It is also likely to cost tax­pay­ers a lot less in le­gal fees.

We have no rea­son to think that leg­is­la­tors who voted for these laws hold big­otry in their hearts, but we can clearly see big­otry in their ac­tions. That’s what “in­ten­tional dis­crim­i­na­tion” means.

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