Guest Columns: Is the Texas Congressional Map Good for Minority Voters?

The fight over congressional redistricting has effectively ended with the release this week of a court-drawn map. Is the state's fast-growing minority population getting what it deserves? We asked three players in the process to read between the lines.

Nina Perales, vice president for litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, believes Latino voters make important gains in the court-drawn map. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, says the map gives with one hand and takes with the other. State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, argues the map harms Hispanic and black voters. Click the tabs below to read their comments.

Nina Perales, the vice president for litigation at MALDEF.

This week’s court-ordered interim congressional plan made a dramatic change to the Texas political landscape. Reflecting an increasingly large Latino electorate, the map now includes two new Latino opportunity districts. It is supported by Latino leaders and advocates throughout the state and beyond.

The court-drawn map is also a significant improvement over the plan enacted by the Texas Legislature. The congressional plan that emerged from the 82nd Session awarded all four of the state’s new congressional seats to Anglo-majority areas of the state. Now, as a result of the court-ordered plan, two of the four new congressional seats are majority-minority.

The court’s plan is a result of a hard-fought legal battle over whether the Texas maps comply with federal law prohibiting discrimination in voting. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court directed the three-judge panel to draw an interim congressional map that fixes only parts of the state’s plan that are likely to violate the Voting Rights Act.

Looking at the state’s legislatively enacted congressional plan, one thing was painfully obvious: Although Latino population growth was largely responsible for Texas gaining its four new congressional seats and existing Latino congressional districts were overpopulated, the state had created no additional Latino-majority districts. In order to avoid doing so, the state devised unnatural district shapes and split Latino communities in a glaring racial gerrymander.

One likely violation of the Voting Rights Act was in the Metroplex, where the Legislature had created a new congressional district (CD-33) that was based in suburban areas of Tarrant County and fractured minority voters across the remaining districts. To repair the damage, the three-judge panel created a new Latino-plurality district. The new CD-33 has a 39 percent Latino citizen voting-age population, a 24 percent black citizen voting-age population and a 34 percent Anglo citizen voting-age population. The district offers an equal chance for Latino or African American voters to elect their candidate of choice.

The court-ordered congressional plan also adds a new Latino-majority district in South/Central Texas to accommodate the strong Latino population growth in the region. CD-35 is an open seat that encompasses Latino population in San Antonio, Austin and the cities along the I-35 corridor.

The court also ensured that its congressional plan maintains the effectiveness of existing majority-minority districts in Texas. The court maintained the three existing African American opportunity districts and the seven existing Latino opportunity districts.

The court-approved congressional redistricting map. Click to enlarge.

By maintaining the existing districts and recognizing strong Latino population growth in South/Central Texas and the Metroplex, the court-ordered map increases the number of Latino opportunity congressional districts from seven to nine.

Some observers have asked whether the court-ordered CD-23 has the same effectiveness as the pre-existing CD 23. The court ensured that CD-23 in its new plan would have 55 percent Latino voter registration. More importantly, a comparison of election results from the twelve Latino-Anglo statewide contests from 2002 to 2010 shows that Latino candidates garner a comparable level of electoral support (with an average difference of about 650 votes) in the court’s new CD-23.

The court-ordered map does not preserve CD-25, an Anglo-majority district located in Travis County. In the benchmark plan, CD-25 contains 63 percent Anglo citizen voting-age population. The voter turnout statistics in CD-25 show that Anglos constitute more than 75 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary. Anglos in CD-25 typically do not prefer the same primary candidates as Latinos; as a result, in most elections the much larger Anglo turnout overwhelms Latinos who are voting for a different candidate. Because CD-25 is not a minority opportunity district and the instructions from the U.S. Supreme Court limited the three-judge panel to addressing legal violations, the panel did not preserve this district in the new redistricting plan.

Unlike CD-25, the court-ordered CD-35 contains a majority of Latino citizen voting-age population. Travis County Latinos in the new CD-35 will have the opportunity both to nominate and elect their preferred candidates. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, has chosen to run for office in CD-35; Latino voters in the district will have opportunity to choose him or another candidate as their representative.

The court’s new congressional map is supported by Latino advocates and leaders throughout Texas, including the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force, which includes the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Texas HOPE, the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas, the William C. Velasquez Institute, NOMAR, and Southwest Workers’ Union.

The state’s Latino leadership, speaking with one voice, presented a strong case against the state’s legislatively enacted redistricting plan. The Task Force believes that the new court-ordered congressional map is not perfect, but it complies with the mandates of the U.S. Supreme Court and the legal requirements of the Voting Rights Act and marks significant progress by creating two additional Latino opportunity congressional districts.

Nina Perales, the vice president for litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, was lead counsel for the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.

In the history of Texas, no matter which party was in control, the political will of minorities of all ideological stripes was subordinated to the goals of the state's leadership. In a related note, since 1970, Texas has been denied preclearance for all or part of its redistricting plans. Our current situation is part of a pattern and practice. It is not an accident.

In the last decade, 89.1 percent of the population growth has been minority growth. Fully 2.9 million of these new Texans are Latinos. Many thought that because of this demographic shift, Latino electoral desires could no longer be set aside as they had been in the past. In the end, what the Anglo majority gave with one hand they took with the other. In truth, we ended up exactly where we began.

Many might be surprised to know that the interim congressional map now in play was discussed as a compromise before the beginning of the special session last summer. It was rejected by the leadership of the Legislature. Whenever someone complains about the cost of this litigation, I counter that this should have been handled on the House floor by sticking to an agreement. Instead, the state's plan was so outlandishly unconstitutional that the primary has been reset, the maps redrawn, and we are back where we started.

There is no question that this court-adopted map is a step forward for Texas Latinos. Two new congressional seats is a historic victory. However, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus also measures this victory by how much the map has increased minority opportunity against what was possible. On this score, the court-ordered map is circumspect.

CD-23, a district proven by statistical analysis not to have elected the Latino candidate of choice in 2010, has a lower electoral performance than it had previously. In a district with razor-thin margins of victory, can the voters spare the decrease in their collective voting strength? This is especially troubling given the evidence presented in both federal district courts describing how the state cynically chose to swap out high-performing Latino precincts for less politically effective areas. Just as before, Latinos were good enough to be counted but not good enough to elect their own candidate.

In addition, Nueces County's Latinos are stranded in an Anglo district that runs north to Bastrop. Two hundred thousand Latinos will lose their ability to elect their chosen candidate for the foreseeable future. This same community was the seat of one of the first court-created Latino majority seats in Texas. More importantly, it was shown at trial that it is impossible to draw eight compact, Latino citizenship majority districts in South Texas without including Nueces County in a Latino opportunity seat.

The court-approved congressional redistricting map. Click to enlarge.

With the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, many courts have ruled that existing minority coalition districts are protected from elimination. While we join the Latino Redistricting Task force and their counsel, MALDEF, in applauding the creation of a new central Texas minority opportunity district, CD-35, and a new Dallas/Fort Worth Latino opportunity district, CD-33, we abhor the state's choice to destroy a possible minority coalition district. The state chose to punish the voters of Travis County for their political positions in a blatant and vulgar manner, using their dislike for a particular congressman as a justification. In doing so, the very kind of coalition district that the Voting Rights Act was meant to engender — where black, brown and white voters pull together for a common political goal — was destroyed.

Did the leadership of the Legislature destroy an existing coalition district? Of course it did. Did it gain any real political advantage by doing so? We will soon know definitively. But everyone knows for sure that it did not have to do so. The San Antonio court drew a Central Texas minority opportunity district that did not interfere with minority communities in Travis County.

But for the intervention of the Voting Rights Act and the courts, the result for Texas' minority voters would have been far worse.

We, like the Latino Redistricting Task Force, applaud the creation of two new Latino opportunity districts. In voting rights and politics, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. However, a perfect world where minorities have a vote and that vote matters is a world worth fighting for.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, is in his sixth term representing the House District 116. He is the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin.

Over the last decade, the black population in Texas grew more than the white population — yet the interim congressional plan adopted by the San Antonio court this week reduces voting opportunities overall for black voters. In a report filed with the court, Dr. Richard Murray of the University of Houston notes that while two minority opportunity districts were added, two were eliminated. Eleven out of 32 versus 11 out of 36 is not an increase. There is no net gain, and the interim plan is retrogressive.

This is best illustrated in two urban areas: one in Central Texas and the other in North Texas.

The interim plan reduces the voting power of blacks by eliminating an effective crossover district centered in Travis County (currently CD-25) where blacks, voting in a coalition with Latino and white crossover voters, were able to consistently elect their candidate of choice to Congress. Much of the five-way division of Travis County used black voters as “filler” for Anglo-dominated districts anchored in distant rural population areas.

Specifically, the interim plan’s CD-25 takes two parts from the current district. One part, in the south and central part of the county, contains significant black population (it is about 25 percent combined Latino and black). The second part squeezes through a narrow inlet in the center of Austin, moving to the east side of Interstate 35 and grabbing the area with the highest concentration of black population in the county — placing black voters in a district that is overwhelmingly white, runs through nine predominantly white rural counties and ends up in southern Tarrant County. These black Austin voters used to be able to elect their candidate of choice. Now their vote in congressional races is essentially meaningless.

The reconfiguration of CD-21 is another example of the fragmentation of the black population in the court’s interim plan. Nearly 40,000 Latinos and blacks are moved into the redesigned CD-21. Before the court blessed their move into a white-dominated district anchored in San Antonio, most of the large numbers of those black voters were in CD-25, where their vote in congressional races meant something. Now it means basically nothing.

CD-17, based in the Waco and College Station areas, manages to extend an arm along the northern part of Travis County, capturing an area of black population that has been of growing significance in recent years. Even though CD-17 is overwhelmingly white, with its base far afield from Travis County, the part of it extending into Travis is 41 percent black and Hispanic. Those voters will have no meaningful power in congressional contests.

The court-approved congressional redistricting map. Click to enlarge.

Finally, of the nearly 100,000 blacks currently in Travis County, at least half are in a district where they have a meaningful vote for their congressional candidate of choice. The interim map completely undoes that.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, meanwhile, the interim map adopts a new district (labeled CD-33) with significantly contorted boundaries and many split precincts that appear designed to capture Latino blocks and precincts while specifically excluding black blocks and precincts.

Nearly 50,000 blacks who would more naturally be included in a CD-33 designed to repair illegal fracturing are instead left stranded in Anglo-controlled Republican districts in Tarrant County. At the same time, the North Texas configuration continues the packing of black voters in CD-30, thereby preventing the creation of a second minority-ability-to-elect district in that region. The Texas NAACP filed a map showing how easily two new minority districts, CD-30 and CD-24, could and should have been drawn in the Metroplex. The creation of these two districts would be naturally occurring, reflecting the population growth in the D/FW area.

I understand that the court's plan is based on a plan that MALDEF, the Latino Task force and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, proposed along with the state of Texas. Undoubtedly, these plaintiffs believe that their agreed-to plan is fair to minority voters.

The Texas Legislative Black Caucus, NAACP, LULAC and I disagree. We feel that the congressional plan should protect the voting rights of all minority voters, not just a limited subset — especially when the agreed-to plan (and the court's plan) continues to harm Hispanic and black voters in several parts of the state.

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, is in her ninth term representing House District 46.