Why redistricting is different this time: The Voting Rights Act and the Obama Justice Department

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As the folks at the Texas Tribune pointed out in a recent TribCast, the upcoming redistricting round will be the first in history that is both subject to the Voting Rights Act and reviewed by a Democratic Department of Justice. It is very likely that, come 2011, Texas will have many more minority-opportunity districts than ever before. Not only because the Hispanic and African-American populations in Texas have grown so much since 2000, but also because – for the first time in Texas history – national Democrats will be ensuring its fairness.

For those who are new to politics, redistricting is the process of redrawing the district lines for all Texas House, Texas Senate, and U.S. House seats. The U.S. Constitution requires that redistricting occur at least every ten years, following the census. The Legislature draws all of the lines and Texas state law puts virtually no limitation on the maps they produce.

Passed in 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) places many restrictions on how states can administer elections. Most famously, Section 5 of VRA requires “preclearance” by the Justice Department of any changes in voting procedures in “covered jurisdictions” that have a history of depriving vote rights to minority groups. Nine states, including Texas, and a number of other counties and cities make up these covered jurisdictions. In other words, if any political subdivision in Texas wants to change its voting procedures – from the location of a polling place to the order of names on the ballot to the district lines – it has to seek the Justice Department's approval in advance.

Since the passage of VRA, the Texas Legislature has undertaken redistricting five times, in '71, '81, '91, '01, and '03. At each of these times, the White House – and therefore the Justice Department – was controlled by Republicans. Nixon in '71, Reagan in '81, Bush Sr. in '91, and Bush Jr. in '01 and '03.  Considering the modern Republican Party's commitment to denying rights to racial minorities, I can't imagine that these past administrations were really working overtime to protect minority rights in redistricting. I'm also confident that the Obama Justice Department will do everything it can to make sure Hispanics and African-Americans get the votes they deserve.  

The upshot? Regardless of who is Speaker, Lieutenant Governor, or Governor next year, the maps of Texas districts are going to do more to empower minority voting rights than we've had in decades.

Will Ikard is a graduate of UT Law School and a partner at the political strategy firm GNI Strategies

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