A recent court action against Texas is important, but it should not fool us into believing that existing laws are sufficient to protect voting rights. Indeed, the central lesson from Texas is that Congress must update the Voting Rights Act. Last week, the Justice Department joined several civil rights groups in asking a federal court to require that Texas preclear its future voting changes with federal officials. The Department relied on Section three of the Voting Rights Act, which remains in force even after last month’s Supreme Court decision. Section three allows a court to “bail in” to coverage areas with contemporary, intentional voting discrimination. Significant discrimination persists in Texas, and the court should order Texas to preclear future voting changes.
Last August, for example, a federal court concluded that a congressional redistricting map was “enacted with discriminatory intent.” In redrawing district maps, Texas politicians had excluded Latino and African-American lawmakers from the process and drew maps that diminished minority votes. For example, they split the minority community in Dallas-Fort Worth into four separate Anglo-controlled districts (including one “lightning-bolt” shaped district), and also packed minority voters into a handful of minority districts (one district was increased to 86 percent minority) to maximize the number of Anglo-controlled districts. Every predominately African-American district lost its congressional district office location and economic engines (e.g., sports arenas, hospitals, universities) — but none of the predominately Anglo districts suffered such losses. The federal court concluded that “[t]he parties provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space or need to address here.”
Many more contemporary examples exist, especially at the local level. In Nueces County, Texas, for example, county officials responded to the rapidly growing Latino community, which has surpassed 56 percent of the county’s population, by gerrymandering local election districts in 2011 to diminish Latino voting strength. And in Runnels County, Texas, a court ordered that every polling place have at least one bilingual poll worker (90 percent of Latino residents speak Spanish at home), but the county defied the court — in November 2009, not one county polling place had a bilingual poll worker.