Diluting the student vote

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The U.S. Department of Justice sent Texas’ new political district maps back to the drawing board Monday. Responding to a suit filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, which sought a declaration that the new lines drawn during this past session do not violate the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department signaled it will fight it in court. The department’s move to block the new maps should be viewed as a hopeful and welcome one for every Texan who values fair elections and as an especially important for the minority groups the new lines seek to silence.

A provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that any changes to voting procedures in Texas must be examined by either the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. before they can take effect. Texas is one of nine states, most of which are in the south, to which this “preclearance” provision applies. In order to conform to the law, new maps must not “have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.”

New district lines are generally drawn every 10 years to reflect changes in population distribution. The 10-year interval mirrors the frequency of the decennial census, from which population data is drawn to tweak the maps. Because of its large population increase from 2000 through 2010, Texas gained four seats in the U.S House of Representatives.

With the Republican Party firmly in control of the Texas government, many Democratic commentators were concerned that the new districts would be drawn to benefit Republicans in future elections. But such is the nature of the hyper-partisan redistricting process. Given the opportunity to increase their chances of electoral success, their opportunism is understandable and predictable. Of course, Democrats have done it where and when they have been in power.

The problem for Republican lawmakers during the past session was that minority groups — primarily Hispanics — were responsible for 89 percent of the population growth between 2000 and 2010, according to The Texas Tribune. Because these groups tend to vote for Democrats, lawmakers had to get creative with their new lines to achieve their partisan goals.

Of the four new Congressional districts, only one was drawn to be a “majority-minority” district, meaning that most voters in the district belong to an ethnic minority group. The remaining three were designed to be easy Republican wins.

It was at this point that lawmakers ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act. Because they failed to give due weight to the increased minority populations — and in some cases, diluting their own voting strength in existing districts ­— the new lines were immediately challenged in court. The continued litigation will likely mean that new district lines will need to be drawn by the courts for the 2012 election cycle as the lawsuit moves through the court system.

Looking at the new maps quickly reveals the lawmakers’ methodology. Austin looks like the center of a wagon wheel, with five Congressional districts radiating out from Central Austin as far afield as Dallas and Houston. Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston and as much of the Rio Grande Valley as one could possibly imagine look largely the same.

This pattern results in the absurdity of, for instance, students living on campus, in West Campus and in parts of North Campus being represented by three different Congressmen. The maps as drawn during the 82nd legislative session split the major areas where UT students live into four congressional districts, and their shapes demonstrate the extent to which lawmakers were willing to go to create districts which would benefit them.

The Justice Department’s move is particularly courageous as the Supreme Court indicated as recently as 2009 — in another case originating here in Austin — that the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act may be unconstitutional. Commentators have expressed concern that any new challenge based on the Voting Rights Act could be used by the court to strike it down. But Texas’ new maps are so unbalanced as to clearly demonstrate its continued necessity.

And while the Voting Rights Act does not apply to students as a group, students have often been victims of the same political calculus that has sought to divide other minority voting groups in Texas over the past several decades. In this sense, the department’s action should be seen as a victory for students as well. Moreover, the University reported Friday that enrollment of Hispanic students at UT stands at 17.5 percent of the total as of this semester. This number has “increased steadily” since 2001, when it stood at 12 percent.

Our University greatly benefits from the incredible diversity of thought and backgrounds present here among students. Texas, in the same way, benefits greatly from its own diversity in its residents. It is shameful that state lawmakers would seek to marginalize their political influence while reaping the economic windfalls of their residency.

— Matt Daley for the editorial board.