U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder strode onto the stage before the National Urban League on Thursday and announced his intention to take the fight for voting rights — both literally and figuratively — to Texas. The subsequent Republican sputterings and wistful Democratic musings fed the faithful in both parties. Republican leaders, firmly ensconced in power, scolded an intrusive federal government to the delight of the party’s conservative base, while Democrats saw Holder as a defender of the emerging Hispanic vote that would carry the party back to the promised land. But the announcement also gave sustenance to an army of lawyers engaged in what has become a never-ending legal battle over election laws and political map-making. Holder’s announcement was prompted by last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, which effectively removed a vital provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The provision had required 16 jurisdictions, including several former Confederate states like Texas, to seek pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) before making changes to election laws and redistricting maps. The attorney general called the court’s reasoning in the Shelby County v. Holder case “flawed”, and with little chance that a divided Congress would address the issue, the administration pledged to seek other remedies. Holder announced he would revive legal battles made moot by the high court decision by turning to other provisions in the VRA that allow plaintiffs to present specific evidence of minority disenfranchisement to the courts as a step to pre-clearance.
In Texas, following Holder’s announcement, the DOJ claimed clear evidence of discrimination both in the past and present, and asked a federal court to impose at least 10 years of required pre-clearance. This new approach will be tested — perhaps appropriately given the level of political rhetoric — in a San Antonio federal courtroom just blocks from the famous shrine to Texas liberty, the Alamo, where a three-judge panel has been grappling for over two years with the redrawing of Texas’s congressional and legislative maps following the 2010 census. Holder also pledged to block a Texas voter ID law passed in 2011 that state Attorney General Greg Abbott had green-lighted immediately following the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling
By choosing Texas, the largest and most Republican of all the states, the Obama Administration is signaling to its base and key minority constituencies that it is doing “everything possible” to uphold the VRA, says Mark P. Jones, Rice University political scientist. The effort is also a morale-booster for a party lost in the Texas wilderness. After decades of Democratic dominance, the emergence of the Republican Party in Texas in the early 1990s set the stage for a series of political death matches over redistricting. With an ever-strengthening state party, Republican legislators have dominated the political map-making efforts, bolstering Republican numbers in the state legislature and Congress.