In a crucial victory for Hispanic voters in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, the city will remain under federal oversight for any changes to its voting laws until 2023 — the only setup of its kind in Texas. The Pasadena City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved Mayor Jeff Wagner’s proposal to settle a voting rights lawsuit over how it redrew its council districts in 2013, agreeing to pay out about $1 million in legal fees. Approval of that settlement will also dissolve the city’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that Pasadena ran afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act and intentionally discriminated against Hispanic voters in reconfiguring how council members are elected. The local voting rights squabble had caught the attention of voting rights advocates and legal observers nationwide as some looked to it as a possible test case of whether the Voting Rights Act still serves as a safeguard for voters of color.
As things stand now, the dispute won’t set broader precedent across Texas or beyond state lines. But in a state embroiled in court-determined voting rights violations on several fronts, the federal guardianship of Pasadena’s elections is meaningful, particularly following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 finding that conditions for voters of color had “dramatically improved.”
“I think it’s significant that in 2017 we have a trial court finding of intentional racial discrimination by a city in Texas and that the drastic remedy of preclearance has been successfully imposed,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s law school who specializes in election law. “The Pasadena ruling indicates that in some places racial discrimination in voting is very much a thing of the present.”