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Redistricting jeopardizes state primary schedule

Texas Democrats and Republicans disagree about the best way to incorporate minority population growth into voter districts, leading to multiple lawsuits.
On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously the interim maps drawn by a three-judge panel of a Texas district court in San Antonio are unlawful. The Supreme Court sent the maps back to the San Antonio court to be redrawn for use in the 2012 elections. Texas’ redistricting plan — drawn by Texas politicians at the state and federal levels in response to the 2010 census — awaits approval in a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
“The Supreme Court confirmed that the San Antonio court drew illegal maps, without regard for the policy decisions of elected leaders,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in a statement released Friday. “As the justices point out, courts are ill-suited to make policy judgments and redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the state. The Court made clear that the district court must give deference to elected leaders of this state, and it’s clear by the Supreme Court ruling that the district court abandoned these guiding principles.”
The ruling comes sooner than anticipated. Oral arguments were held Jan. 9 before the nation’s highest court. Once it became clear that the preclearance process would not be completed in time for Texas’ originally-scheduled March 6 primary elections (since moved to April), the D.C. district court directed the district court in San Antonio to draw an interim map for immediate use.
The preclearance process, dictated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is designed to ensure that states that have a history of discrimination against minority groups accurately represent the population. Laura Bean, deputy communications director for the state attorney general, said Texas is one of only nine states that require preclearance.
“The state of Texas is required to have their redistricting maps approved by the federal government in a process called preclearance,” Bean said. “We filed legal action in the Washington, D.C. district court in July [2011]. We wanted the three judges to read all of our information and make a ruling without a trial. They denied our motion for summary judgment, and said we needed a trial.”
Hearings for the preclearance trial began Tuesday and continue through Thursday. Final arguments are scheduled for Feb. 3.
“To avoid being compelled to make such otherwise standardless decisions, a district court should take guidance from the state’s recently-enacted plan in drafting an interim plan. That plan reflects the state’s policy judgments on where to place new districts and how to shift existing ones in response to massive population growth,” read the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court.
However, many parties are upset with the plan adopted by the state last July, including minority groups across the state.
In September, several entities, including the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, filed suit against the state of Texas, claiming that the redistricting map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Bean said.
Section 2 generally prohibits voting discrimination.
There was no ruling, however, because the state maps still lack preclearance by the D.C. court.
The parties involved in the suit, mostly Democrats, claim that the maps discriminate against minority groups. Republicans represented the majority of elected officials who participated drafting the maps.
“The legislature draws the lines, and I don’t think there was any discrimination,” Bryan-College Station representative John Raney said. “But the opposing party wants them redrawn to boost their votes. They tried to keep those districts as compact as possible to keep it easier for people to run and gain election.”
Because Raney was elected in a special election after the 2011 session, he did not participate in the redistricting process.
Long time Bryan-College Station senator Steve Ogden, who actively participated in the redistricting process, declined to comment about the maps or litigation, deferring instead to the state attorney general’s office.
Other Republican leaders said the suit is politically motivated.
“It’s been party politics. The Democrats announced as early as last year that they wanted to file lawsuits and challenge the legislation,” said Chris Elam, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas. “They want to maximize their party’s strengths. [The] lawsuits were already written before the preclearance process started.”
Elam also pointed out that the GOP has increased minority representation to office.
“[The Republican party] has been electing more state-wide Hispanic members at the state and national level than the Democrats,” Elam said. “Look at 2010 when we elected five Hispanics to the state and one to the national level. We feel that it is very politically based and they are tremendously diminishing the impact of the 2010 vote when Texans elected Hispanic Republicans.”
Democrats say the Republican plan intentionally under-represents minority voters, whose voting power has increased during the past decade.
“I definitely think there are serious issues with the map, especially in Bryan-College Station. It is ridiculous. The map looks like a doughnut and a doughnut hole,” said Dawn Peterangelo, president of Texas Aggie Democrats. “It is a foray by those in power to try to gain a few more seats.”
While Texas awaits a ruling in the preclearance trial, it is unclear what this recent ruling of the Supreme Court will do to ensure the April 3 primary. It’s uncertain whether Texas will use new interim maps drawn by the three-judge panel in San Antonio for the 2012 election or wait for a ruling on preclearance from the D.C. District Court.
“Our primary concern right now is trying to obtain a schedule or ruling from the Supreme Court and from the Federal panel in San Antonio. If that deadline comes and goes on Feb. 1, then it is going to dramatically impact the elections,” said Elam.
Raney said that this uncertainty is bad for candidates, because people don’t know what district they are going to run in.
This is also confusing to students who vote, Peterangelo said.
“As a student, you may not be voting for someone who can represent A&M even though you may be casting a ballot in College Station,” the senior aerospace engineering major said. “Also, students need to know that in this district, polling locations have changed. New precincts for those living off-campus are being drawn.”
According to Elam, the court floated the idea of pushing the primary back to June. Also, the primary could be split between two dates, with elections still occurring in April for offices not affected by redistricting, Elam said. This includes party primaries for presidential candidates.
The Republican Party of Texas supports splitting the election, saying this option gives Texans greater influence in choosing the Republican presidential nominee.
Texas has the second largest delegation to the Republican National Convention, Elam said. As losing candidates withdraw from the primary contest, Texas voters face a shrinking field from which to choose a candidate.
Abbott remains optimistic, though, that there will be new maps released before the primary has to be delayed once more.
“The Supreme Court’s swift decision will allow Texas to move forward with elections as soon as possible, under maps that are lawful,” Abbott said.

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