Texas GOP Holds Hispanics in Check

Last week Scott offered a great defense of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that Section Five—a clause that requires southern states to receive preclearance before changing any voting procedures—is a necessary correction to the limits of the Fifteenth Amendment. That provision was recently overturned by the D.C. Circuit, setting up a hearing in the Supreme Court that could possibly strike down the landmark civil rights legislation. Given the recent conservative tilt of the Supreme Court, some legal experts are predicting that the circuit court's decision will be upheld, with the majority arguing that the act was crafted during circumstances no longer relevant to the political climate. The recent spate of voter suppression laws tell another story and are often trotted out by liberals as the best evidence to highlight the continued need for Section Five. However today's primaries in Texas also offer a good test case for why the Voting Rights Act needs to be strengthened rather than abridged.

Texas picked up four new House seats after the 2010 census. The Republican-controlled state legislature redrew the state maps, but those plans were put on ice when the Justice Department challenged the new layout. The primaries today are being held under temporary maps instituted by a San Antonio court while the broader question waits to be answered by a panel of federal judges in D.C.

Most of the new congressional seats are a result of the state's rapidly growing Hispanic population, yet as the AP notes, the map of the moment probably won't put any new Hispanic representatives in Washington:

Between 2000 and 2010, Hispanics accounted for three out of every five new Texas residents. Nearly 38 percent of the state's population is now Hispanic. Population gains have been reflected in the number of Hispanic officeholders elected in down-ballot races from the legislature to school boards - up 46 percent to about 2,500 between 1996 and 2010.

Yet gains on Capitol Hill have not kept pace. The six Hispanic members represent about a fifth of the state's 32 congressional seats.

Two of the four new districts were drawn as minority-opportunity seats, touching on four major cities with large Latino populations: Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. About 60 percent of the voting-age population in both districts is Hispanic.

"These elections are a key test of Latino voting power in 2012," said Democrat Domingo Garcia, who's trying to become the first Hispanic elected to Congress from Dallas. "It would be breaking that glass barrier in terms of what Texas really looks like."

But the boundaries set up races with two strong Democrats - one a well-known incumbent congressman - who were not Hispanic. The political wrangling and legal challenges over the districts also lasted months and gave newcomers less time to prepare.

Section Five is the only thing that stops Texas Republicans from willy-nilly drawing the maps completely in their favor, ignoring the underlying demographic changes of the state. Texas Democrats are going to have to deal with this less than perfect map for now, but if the court sides with the Justice Department's arguments, there may be a far more representative map in Texas' future.

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