Court finds intentional voter discrimination, Voter education bill still pending

AUSTIN (AP) – A Republican-drawn map setting the boundaries of Texas’ statehouse districts violates the U.S. Constitution by intentionally discriminating against minority voters, a federal court found April 20 – the third such ruling against the state’s voting laws in roughly a month.

The latest ruling means Texas’ strict voter ID law, congressional maps and state legislative maps – all of which were enacted in 2011 – have recently been found in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

For Texas, the stockpiling losses carry the risk of a court punishing the state by demanding approval before changing voting laws. The process, known as “preclearance,” was formerly required of Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. But the court kept in place the chance that states could again fall under federal oversight if intentional discrimination is found.

Minority rights groups and Democrats could press a three-judge panel in San Antonio over that possibility at a court hearing later this month, when they’re also expected to demand new state and congressional maps for the 2018 elections.

The latest decision concerns how districts were drawn by Republicans for the state House of Representatives, which the GOP now controls 95-55, in addition to every other branch of state government. In a 2-1 ruling, federal judges again found signs of racial gerrymandering and evidence that Republicans intentionally diluted the growing electoral power of minorities around Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and elsewhere.

“This ruling confirms an unfortunate reality that we have long known to be true about voting practices in Texas,” expressed Rep. Eric Johnson in a statement to the press. “This state has continued a disturbing pattern of violating the rights of minority voters and the Legislature must address this issue with urgency. Whether redistricting or voter identification laws, we cannot truly have fair elections in Texas until we end these discriminatory voting practices.”

Mark Rylander, a spokesman for Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the state would ultimately prevail. The maps were redrawn in 2012 before being ever being used in an election.

“As Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry Smith observed in his dissent, the challenge to the old 2011 maps are not only moot but ‘a finding that racial considerations were dominant and controlling defies everything about this record,’” Rylander said.

Paxton and Republicans are now forced to keep defending major voting laws Texas signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2011. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi again found intentional discrimination in Texas’ voter ID law, two years after she likened the ballot-box rules to a “poll tax” meant to suppress minority voters.

The Texas law requires voters to show one of seven forms of identification at the ballot box. That list includes concealed handgun licenses – but not college student IDs – and Texas was forced under court order last year to weaken the law for the November elections.

Before 2018, opponents now want new maps drawn that could boost Democrats, which haven’t won a statewide race in Texas in more than 23 years.

“Now that there is intentional racial discrimination finding that continues to infect the plans that we’re using right now, the only appropriate thing to do would be to fix them,” said Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is among the groups suing the state.

Rep. Helen Giddings, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus chair, applauded the federal court ruling and stated in a media release that the discriminatory voter ID law and the attorney general’s continuous appeals are costly and “continuously showcase the law’s unconstitutionality.”

“Texas should use its resources to guarantee that every citizen is able to exercise their right to vote, especially since many people of color died to obtain it,” Giddings concluded.

Writing in dissent over the decision on the statehouse maps, Smith said the opinion defied logical explanation.

“The majority’s findings are fatally infected, from start to finish, with the misunderstanding that race, rather than partisan advantage, was the main reason for the Congressional and state house districts drawn in 2011,” Smith wrote.

On Monday, the Texas House Committee on Elections held a public hearing on House Bill 3328, authored by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez. The bill seeks to increase government transparency in the interest of improving voter ID education efforts by making information related to public spending on voter ID education public information subject to disclosure under the Public Information Act. The exceptions described in Sections 552.101 and 552.103 of the Government Code would no longer apply to such information.

The state is responsible for educating the public about voter identification requirements under Senate Bill 14, the voter ID law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011. In July 2016, the state was also ordered by a federal court to engage in a $2.5 million voter ID education campaign as part of an interim remedy agreement. Despite evidence that the 2016 voter ID education campaign was not entirely successful, the state has not been forthcoming with details about the plan.

“Multiple studies have shown that voter ID laws can confuse voters and discourage people from exercising their voting rights, so it’s important that voter education is done right. However, there is evidence that the court-ordered 2016 voter ID education campaign was ineffective,” Rodriguez said. “The public has a right to know how millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on the campaign and why it wasn’t successful.

“The Public Information Act should be construed in favor of transparency. The pending litigation exception, for example, should not apply to public spending on voter ID education in 2016, years after SB 14 passed the legislature in 2011. I am hopeful that the House Committee on Elections will recognize the importance of effective voter ID education and support HB 3328.”

Dr. Mark Jones, political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and research associate at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs also expressed concerns.

“Unless a much more robust and transparent public education campaign is carried out prior to the 2018 election, we will likely continue to see a significant number of registered voters failing to turn out to vote, not due to the lack of an ID in their hand, but rather due to the lack of a correct understanding of the photo ID regulations in their head,” Jones stated. “HB 3328 would provide for a more open and transparent public understanding of how the state expends its resources on voter ID education efforts, allaying any concerns that the funds were not being wisely used in a good faith effort to educate Texas registered voters about the state’s photo ID requirements and the voting process.”

The bill is currently pending in committee.

Robyn H. Jimenez/The Dallas Examiner contributed to this report.

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