Does Texas still need the Voting Rights Act?

Texas Tribune Festival panel discusses Voting Rights Act (Josh Hinkle/KXAN)

Does Texas still need the Voting Rights Act? Ask Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrolton, and he’ll tell you “probably not.” Solomons chaired the Texas House redistricting committee in the last legislative session, and now – more than a year later – the maps he shepherded still face legal hurdles partly because of that question.

Solomons – who chose not to seek another term – took part in a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday to pick apart that topic and largely how it applies to the state’s Hispanic population.

“(The redistricting process) wasn’t so much racist,” Solomons said. “It was political…We have 101 Republicans in the House, and we exerted power.”

Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to handle attempts by southern states to suppress voting by African-Americans with maneuvers like literacy tests and poll taxes. The law said states failing to meet specific requirements with respect to voter participation would not be able to change their election procedures without preapproval from the Justice Department or the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Texas was not initially part of the preclearance requirement but was added in 1975 when Congress expanded the law to include states with a substantial non-English speaking population.

“Since that time we’ve still been marching to catch up,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). “It’s very important we have the opportunity to elect our candidate of choice…regardless of political party.”

Perales, one of Solomons’ fellow panelists, has represented Latino interests defending the Act in 2009 and successful redistricting cases in Texas and Arizona.

The conversation quickly turned to a redrawn district in South Texas currently represented by Rep. Aaron Pena, R-Edinburg, who switched parties shortly after the last election. Pena – who previously served eight years in the Texas House as a Democrat and has chosen not to return next year – was also on the panel.

As explained by another panelist – Chad Dunn a lawyer who has handled a string of recent voting-related cases – suggested mapmakers “could not find Latinos” for Pena’s district who would vote Republican. He said, as a result, they sought out white voters then went “block by block” for Latinos who did not vote.

“There are conservative Hispanics out there,” argued Pena, who also claimed that population makes up 90 percent of his community. “How – in the world we live today – does a law that was passed in 1965 apply to my situation?”

Pena’s district aside – the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled last month that Texas’ congressional redistricting maps do not comply with the Act. State Attorney General Greg Abbott has assured an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though the redistricting maps for this election have already been set, litigation surrounding the matter could have an effect on the next elections. Democrats say the Republican-drawn maps do not accurately reflect the state’s exploding population, driven by minorities who largely tend to vote Democratic.

“Are we going to continue to have protected districts 20 years from now?” Solomons asked, regarding that growing trend.

“It’s my hope one day when I wake up in the morning that we won’t have polarized voting anymore,” Perales said. “Congress wouldn’t have to authorize the Voting Rights Act. Someday, yes, I hope everybody is voting for everybody.”

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