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Minority Votes at Center of Congressional District Battle in Texas

Minority Votes Spark Congressional Battles in Texas
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The U.S. Supreme Court stepped into Texas' congressional redistricting debate this week, temporarily halting an order to correct two districts that lower courts found disenfranchised minority voting rights. The court's stay is the latest in the years-long battle over racially motivated redistricting in Texas that could have a significant impact on Republican Party control of Congress. VOA congressional reporter Katherine Gypson traveled to one of the districts at the heart of the debate.

The U.S. Supreme Court stepped into Texas’ congressional redistricting debate this week, temporarily halting a lower court order to correct two districts found to be drawn with racially discriminatory intent.

The Supreme Court’s stay is the latest turn in a contentious six-year battle over accusations of racially motivated redistricting in Texas.

Given Texas’ sizable congressional delegation, a resolution to the case could have a significant impact on upcoming 2018 midterm elections, potentially altering the Republican Party’s numbers in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As one of eight states nationwide with pending redistricting cases, Texas is a leading example of a broader debate over gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of district boundaries in an age of increasing partisan political tensions.

How districts are drawn

Congressional districts are based on population, not on physical areas. After the 2010 U.S. Census, congressional districts averaged about 711,000 people, with states gaining or losing seats based on shifts in population.

Those shifts can sometimes result in oddly shaped districts as the boundaries are redrawn. But critics say the process turns undemocratic when those lines are drawn to purposely include or exclude certain groups of voters to gain a political advantage.

U.S. House of Representative democratic candidate Pete Gallego, left, makes a stop at a polling site, Nov. 8, 2016, in San Antonio, Texas.
U.S. House of Representative democratic candidate Pete Gallego, left, makes a stop at a polling site, Nov. 8, 2016, in San Antonio, Texas.

“In modern-day redistricting, you choose your voters as opposed to your voters choosing the candidate,” Pete Gallego, a Democrat who represented Texas’s 23rd congressional district from 2013-2015, told VOA.

Gallego won the reliably Democratic district after it was redrawn in 2011, before losing the next two elections to Republican Will Hurd in 2014 and 2016 by just a couple thousand votes each time.

“I was able to buck that once — after that the district performed the way the drawers wanted it to,” he said.

Gallego said that when redrawing the district, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature “looked for Latinos that had a high incidence of turnout and they drew them out of the district. And then they looked for Latinos that had a very low rate of participation and it drew them in.

“So the state can stand in front of a federal judge and say well, it’s a very heavily Latino district and by population that may be true,” he added.

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, visits with voters outside of a polling site, Nov. 8, 2016, in San Antonio, Texas.
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, visits with voters outside of a polling site, Nov. 8, 2016, in San Antonio, Texas.

Minority voting rights

But in mid-August, a federal court found previous redistricting violations in Texas’ 23rd District had been resolved, calling it a “Latino opportunity district.” The majority-Latino district is represented by African-American Will Hurd. If the court had ordered the boundaries to be redrawn, it was expected to be one of the most competitive congressional races in the nation.

The court ordered two Texas districts, the 27th and 35th, redrawn because the boundaries either diluted the voting strength of Latinos or relied too heavily on race when drawing the district lines.

Maintaining minority voting strength is a problem at all levels of government, said Ernest Herrera, a staff attorney for MALDEF, a nonpartisan Latino civil rights organization.

“We don’t really care what the party is that the minority group is voting for, what we care about is that they’re voting together for someone,” Herrera said. He explained that district boundaries cutting through communities can dilute the strength of Latino voters, depriving them of the ability to elect their candidate of choice.

The consequences of preserving minority voting strengths are considerable.

“In Texas, because the Republican leaders have gotten their advantage through discrimination, if you undo that, if you unscramble those eggs, if you draw districts that more fairly represent the African-American and Hispanic voting strengths, the political balance of the state starts to come into play, too,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, one of the groups involved in the challenge.

But assumptions about voting patterns can be problematic, Robert Stovall, chairman of the Republican Party of Bexar County, Texas, told VOA. Stovall pointed to Congressman Hurd in Texas’ 23rd District as an example.

“He’s neither white nor Hispanic. Will Hurd is a very sharp, good black man that has been elected two times to that district and those people know exactly who Will Hurd is, and they want him to stay there. To try to gerrymander this so these voters will go in there and vote for more Democrat-elected officials, it’s just twisting to their advantage,” Stovall said.

Minority groups suing the state to change those district lines have until Sept. 5 to provide a response to the state’s appeal.

The case could return to the U.S. Supreme Court even after that response, as both sides battle a ticking clock to the 2018 midterm elections.