U.S. Department of Justice

In 2000, Jane Morgan Bost wrote a grant to the U.S. Department of Justice to get funding for the first on-campus program to combat interpersonal violence affecting UT students. After this call to action for comprehensive victim services, the program received funding, and Voices Against Violence came to fruition a year later.

To kick off Sexual Assault Awareness month, VAV will host the ninth annual Take Back the Night event today. It allows people to speak out as allies and bystanders around these issues in an open place.

According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, completed and attempted rapes occur at a rate of 35 per every 1,000 female students.

“We see survivors of interpersonal violence who come by the center and seek our individual and group counseling and advocacy services,” said Bost, who is now director of Voices Against Violence.

These services include providing specific information on how survivors can acquire safety planning and how to navigate the legal system and medical resources. Bost said the program has seen hundreds of survivors of interpersonal violence who come in for help regarding these issues and who get involved through prevention efforts.

“Because we have such a strong student response and interest in the topic, it seems [interpersonal violence] affects just about everybody in some way,” Bost said.

The event offers the opportunity for speakers to address the everyday micro-aggressions when people of any sexual orientation are referred to with negative language. Individuals who attend the event take a stand and support others through sharing the experiences of family and friends or their own in a safe setting.

“Take Back the Night is a historical event that’s been going on since the ’70s,” said Erin Burrows, prevention and outreach specialist at VAV. “It was a march for a community to literally take back the streets and light up the night with candles, protests, signs and chants.”

Burrows said it has since evolved into a different kind of event at UT where the platform is centered on an open mic speak-out.

Aside from Take Back the Night, the Voices Against Violence program will hosts various other events, including the Theatre for Dialogue performances, which are interactive theater pieces that students perform across campus for classes, student organizations and departments.

“Through our performances, we try to show how to identify when something is a problem and how we support a friend who may be experiencing an abusive or unhealthy relationship,” said Lynn Hoare, Theatre for Dialogue spokeswoman. “The performances act as a way to prepare people to actively respond as an ally if they find themselves in a situation [of sexual assault].”

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. 

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a court filing Monday that Texas’ new voting maps for Congress and for the Texas House do not meet federal anti-discrimination requirements, setting up a legal battle that will decide the landscape of future elections in the state.

The case, which involves the election districts drawn by the Republican-led Texas Legislature, will likely be decided by a federal court in Washington, D.C.

District boundaries are redrawn every 10 years to reflect changes in census data. Any changes to Texas’ voting practices must be cleared by a federal court or the Justice Department to ensure changes do not discriminate based on race or color.

The Justice Department took issue with the maps for Congress and the Texas House, but it agreed with the state attorney general that maps for the Texas Senate and State Board of Education met requirements under the federal Voting Rights Act. But the Justice Department reiterated that the court would have to make its own determination on the education board and Senate maps.

The agency denied that the congressional and House plans maintain or increase the ability of minority voters to elect their candidate of choice, as required by federal law. The Voting Rights Act requires map drawers to give special protection to districts that contain mostly minorities.

“The D.C. court will have to hear these issues fully and we will have a chance to put in our evidence supporting why we think that the plan should not be pre-cleared,” said Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal and Defense Fund, which has joined the case.

“Now, it’s going to have to be decided by the court.”

A separate trial combining lawsuits filed against the plans wrapped up last week in San Antonio. During the trial, minority groups argued the new voting districts don’t reflect the statewide Hispanic population boom over the past decade in Texas.

Texas received four new congressional seats following the last census, more than any other state. The new congressional map was drawn with the goal of protecting and possibly expanding the 23-9 majority enjoyed by Republicans in Texas’ delegation in Washington.

Hispanics have accounted for two-thirds of the state’s growth since 2000. Yet during the two-week federal trial, opponents argued that GOP mapmakers went out of their way to stifle those gains and deny Hispanics greater voting power.

Democrats argued that the map passed by the Texas Legislature this summer simply packed Hispanics and blacks into the same districts.