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Texas redistricting plan faces new political questions on road to federal approval

A suit filed last week by state Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) is just one of many in federal courts around Texas now alleging the Texas Legislature’s new map for U.S. Congress seats under-represents the growth in Texas’ minority populations.

In the Houston Chronicle, Veasey complained that “statewide, 90 percent of the growth has been minority. …(Republicans) figured out how to draw another seat for voters who are shrinking in population.”

“Minorities accounted for almost all of the state’s population growth during the past 10 years, which resulted in Texas gaining four new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives,” the Chronicle reported. Veasey’s suit argues the state’s map should include one new Hispanic-majority district, and one with an African-Americans majority.

Under the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act, any redistricting plan in Texas must be submitted for federal approval either to the Department of Justice or to a federal court, under a preclearance requirement of the law that’s increasingly contentious, as Stateline pointed out in an in-depth piece today.

That requirement, in Section 5 of the law, applies to Texas and at least part of 15 other states where, as the Pew Center on the States’ Stateline explains, there was a history of “low levels of voter participation and rules in place designed to reduce voter participation” — at least in the 1960s and 1970s, when the law took shape.

It’s the same process that Texas’ new voter ID law must clear. Those who’ll be challenging that law are waiting for Texas to submit it for federal preclearance so they can challenge it.

As Stateline explains, to clear the process, a state with a redistricting plan must prove it’s avoided watering down minority voting power in its new map. In the past, states would choose one path to preclearance or the other, but this year at least two states went for both at once:

This is a major change from previous rounds of redistricting and it comes with a politically loaded subtext: Conservative lawmakers mistrust the Obama administration’s Justice Department. They’re looking to either pressure Justice to approve their plans or to sidestep it in court.

Stateline goes on to explain why this year’s preclearance process has a whole new set of political issues at play, not least of all in Texas, where mistrust of the Obama administration runs deep:

For one thing, for the first time since the Voting Rights Act passed, a Democrat is in the White House during redistricting. While career staff in the Justice Department make preclearance recommendations, political appointees can overrule them — as George W. Bush’s Justice Department did for Texas and Georgia maps last decade. One of the big questions this cycle is whether the Obama administration will interpret the law differently than the Bush administration did.

Meanwhile, for the first time, most Southern states are firmly in the hands of Republicans: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas all are preclearance states and in all of them Republicans are in complete control of redistricting. Already, these Republican lawmakers are sparring with the Obama administration on health care, environmental rules and a host of other issues.

~~Texas hasn’t announced which route it’ll take to preclearance — Department of Justice approval, a federal court ruling or both.~~

Update at 4:29: Attorney General Greg Abbott just announced Texas had submitted its plan for preclearance today, doubling down and submitting plans to both the Department of Justice and U.S. District Court in Washington:

By informally submitting the State’s redistricting plans – along with relevant documents and data about those plans – to DOJ, the State is attempting to ensure that the Civil Rights Division and Attorney General Eric Holder have the information necessary to confirm that Texas has fully satisfied the Voting Rights Act’s requirements and is therefore entitled to preclearance.

While the federal government has approved two other states’ plans this year, Texas’ map is even “more complex” than others, Stateline writes:

The debate centers on Hispanic voters, but there’s no agreement on how many Hispanics have to be in one district to elect the Hispanic community’s candidate of choice.

While Congress extended Section 5, and the preclearance rule, for another 25 years pair, a pair of suits, in Shelby County, Ala., and Kinston, N.C., could force a Supreme Court decision that would put an end to preclearance entirely.

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