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Texas asks court to OK redistricting plan despite complaints

The Obama administration and civil rights groups say the Texas redistricting proposal discriminates against minority voters.

November 03, 2011|By Noam N. Levey, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Texas officials have asked a federal court in Washington to allow them to move ahead with a plan to redraw congressional and legislative districts, despite objections from the Obama administration that it discriminates against minority voters.

The racially charged case — which turns on whether Texas created enough minority districts to reflect the surge in the state's Latino population — may help sway which party controls Congress for years to come.

It could also reopen debate over the importance of the landmark Voting Rights Act nearly half a century after it was enacted to correct decades of racial discrimination at the ballot box.

The law mandates that states with a history of disenfranchising minority voters must get clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before redrawing their legislative boundaries after the census every decade.

But Republican leaders in many of these states have increasingly chafed at the requirement. Several GOP-controlled states are suing to overturn the Voting Rights Act, contending that it is unconstitutional and unnecessary.

Texas is not explicitly challenging the act. But the Obama administration and many civil rights groups say its redistricting plan — approved by an overwhelmingly Republican state Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry, now a GOP presidential contender — runs roughshod over the act.

"There is direct and circumstantial evidence that the development and passage of these redistricting plans were tarnished by the prohibited purpose of diminishing the ability of citizens of the United States, on account of race … to elect their preferred candidate," Justice Department lawyers wrote in court papers.

Texas officials deny any discrimination, contending that their redistricting plan favors incumbents and the party in power, as is common in the redistricting process.

"Texas did the best that it could," state Deputy Atty. Gen. David Schenck said Wednesday, explaining that Texas officials tried to ensure sufficient minority representation without making race the dominant factor in drawing districts, which has been prohibited by the Supreme Court.

Schenck asked the court to approve the state plan without the delay of holding a trial on the issues.

At the heart of the case is the growing number of Latinos in Texas, who now constitute more than 37% of the population, according to census figures.

Texas, whose 32-member congressional delegation is dominated by 23 Republicans, is slated to pick up four more congressional seats next year. But the state has only six Latino congressmen, two of whom are Republicans.

Texas officials say their redistricting plan preserves the ability of Latino citizens "to elect representatives of their choice" by concentrating enough Latino voters in seven districts, the same as today.

In addition, the state says it will now have two congressional districts where black voters have the opportunity to elect a member of Congress, up from one currently.

Administration lawyers and civil rights groups, however, say the state's crude analysis makes no allowance for the growth in the state's minority population, thereby setting back minority voting rights.

The three-judge federal panel in Washington — consisting of one Obama appointee and two appointees of former President George W. Bush — did not indicate Wednesday when it would rule on the case.

But time is short, as election officials in Texas try to make plans for the 2012 election and a separate court in the state considers whether to impose a temporary redistricting plan while the voting rights issue is litigated in Washington.

noam.levey@latimes.com

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