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So … The Plaintiffs Won the Texas Redistricting Lawsuit, Right? Right?

I. TL;DR Q&A

(1) Ugh! This blog post looks like it’s really long.

So, just tell me: Did the plaintiffs in the 2011 Texas redistricting case win or not?

ANSWER: On March 10, 2017, the federal redistricting panel reviewing contested matters relating to the 2011 redistricting of Texas congressional districts issued an opinion finding that with respect to the following congressional districts …

(2) No! Too much! I mean seriously. Just tell me yes or no. Did the plaintiffs win or not? Yes or no? That’s all I want.

ANSWER: Yes. The plaintiffs won.

(3) Great! So that means (if, for example, you live in Austin) I’m back in Lloyd Doggett’s district, right? I mean, you live in Austin, too, right? — you know what I’m talking about. So anyway, I’m not in Lamar Smith’s district anymore, right?

ANSWER: Um.

The boundaries haven’t actually been changed yet (except that the boundaries were changed by a remedial 2012 legislative redistricting plan that replaced the 2011 plan that is the original subject of this suit).

However, I should point out that the boundary lines for Representative Smith’s district (Congressional District 21) were not directly in dispute, and would only be changed as a result of changes that might be implemented for the affected districts (CD-23, CD-26, CD-27, and CD-35) that were found to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

I should also point out that the court’s order relates to the 2011 legislative redistricting plan, and not to the remedial 2012 redistricting plan that was put in place temporarily in advance of the 2012 elections; the plaintiffs allege that the 2012 plan is also flawed, and that determination is still pending.

(4) What?

ANSWER: The decision issued by the redistricting panel did not change any existing U.S. House of Representatives boundary lines. That work is left for the Texas Legislature, or for the court. Other work is still pending as well, including an expected determination as to whether the contested state legislative districts were also unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, and whether the State will be subject to preclearance in response to intentional racial discrimination per Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. But if it’s any comfort to you, the panel did find that Lloyd Doggett’s district (CD-35) was invalidly drawn.

(5) But … what about the 2018 elections? I mean the U.S. House of Representatives elections?

ANSWER: Presumably, we’ll either have new congressional boundaries in place in time for the 2018 election cycle, or we won’t.

(6) Augh! That’s no answer! You know, its just this sort of fiddly, picky, pedantry that makes people hate lawyers, right?

ANSWER: Yes.

II. TS;DU (“Too Short; Didn’t Understand”): here’s some more context.

Here’s some background for those of you who might be curious about what’s happening with political redistricting in Texas.

  • Back in 2011, a number of affected candidates and voters filed suit challenging aspects of the decennial legislative redistricting plan adopted by the Texas Legislature. A core group of plaintiffs focused their concerns on how U.S. Congressional seats were apportioned, and while the suit also concerned state legislative district boundaries, most of the national public media interest in the Texas redistricting suit has been on those key seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • The case has followed a convoluted path, in part because of various appeals and procedural challenges over the years. To get some sense of just how convoluted this path is, check out the summary of the case offered by the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Moritz College of Law’s archive of the court filings made by the parties since 2011.
  • Currently the matter is before the Federal District Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division, and more specifically is in the hands of a panel of three judges who were assigned to the case for the purpose of resolving the redistricting disputes.
  • On January 2, 2017, some of the plaintiffs filed a motion for an entry of a judgment by no later than January 18, 2017; this motion was rejected. The unpublished response from the court on January 5, 2017, was that the opinion would be issued “as soon as possible” but not on any specified timeline.
  • Apparently to prove that the court was in fact moving with all possible speed to resolve the matter, the panel released its decision and findings of fact late in the day on Friday, March 10, 2017, instead of waiting until the following Monday.
  • The decision was, needless to say, big news for those of us who are interested in redistricting questions — the majority opinion found that four of the State’s congressional districts had been drawn with racially discriminatory intent.
  • In addition to being big news, the decision was also physically … well … big, reflecting the enormous volume of geographic and voting demographic data that the court had been obligated to review. The opinion is about 200 pages long, with another 443 pages contained in the related findings of fact (the linked article briefly summarizes how “findings of fact” function as the rough equivalent of judge-made “jury findings” in the context of non-jury trials. See also this short continuing legal education .pdf that describes “findings of fact and conclusions of law” in the context of state and federal court decision-making generally)Even the dissenting opinion recognized the monumental effort of the court and its staff in assembling and synthesizing this quantity of legal material.
  • The March 10 opinion has a number of significant and important stylistic features, not the least of which is that the majority drafted a meticulously thoughtful treatment and framework for answering one of the central philosophical problems of modern redistricting — namely, what to do when a claim of partisan advantage is used as a proxy for intentional racial discrimination.
  • The opinion was also drafted with great care to provide satisfactory answers to questions about how to serve the voting interests of what might be regarded as superficially racially homogeneous but politically and geographically distinct communities of interest.
  • Conservatives who are unhappy with the decision will be likely to quote the stinging and strongly partisan dissent, which regards the whole of the redistricting dispute as having been rendered moot by the passing of time, and which characterizes the legal arguments made by the former Obama administration-era Department of Justice attorneys (who had been aligned with the plaintiffs) as an insulting and unprincipled effort to characterize the lawmaking functions of the Texas Legislature as motivated by overt racism.
  • Significantly (and, I would say unfortunately for the plaintiffs), the majority opinion declined to draw new district boundaries to correct the racially discriminatory effects caused by the 2011 redistricting plan. Instead, the court left that task pending for a future examination of the 2012 interim maps that were formally adopted as permanent by the Texas Legislature for elections starting in 2013.
  • Most news coverage of the decision in Perez et al. v. Perry et al. treats this result as a huge and important victory for the plaintiffs, with findings of fact that will support the reimposition of federal oversight and preemptive analysis of future changes in Texas election procedures. The opinion is well-drafted to withstand appellate scrutiny, and is as good a decision as could have been hoped for with respect to eventual Supreme Court review.
  • My deep-seated pessimism (which is partly congenital, and partly informed by the political world we now inhabit) makes it harder for me to feel upbeat about this victory. In the Trump administration, is there any legal institution currently inclined or capable of effectively enforcing the constitutional rights of minority voters? I think the answer is no.

III. So now what? 

So, what can a Texas voter — or any U.S. voter, for that matter — who is interested in fair and actually representative elections do?

  1. Work to elect lawmakers who respect the needs of minority voters in the context of redistricting.
  2. As a corollary to point 1, remove lawmakers from office who engage in discriminatory gerrymandering.
  3. Tell your state legislators that you support bipartisan redistricting reform, and that you judge your lawmakers’ job performance in part based on how well those lawmakers uphold the precepts of the Voting Rights Act.

 

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Mini roundup of Texas election law stories

1. Voter Registration — Status of TCRP Suit To Enforce Federal Motor Voter Laws

We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety, and just to refresh you, here’s what’s going on:

  • Texas provides a website portal for the online renewal of drivers’ licenses, which should in theory also allow voters to easily update their voter registration.
  • BUT … for voters who have moved from one Texas county to another, online renewal carries pitfalls, including unexpected “gotcha” cancellations of existing voter registration status, and confusing or misleading information about how voter registration renewal works.
  • Thousands of Texas voters have unwittingly had their voter registrations cancelled when they attempted to update their status online.
  • Recently, the State of Texas was sanctioned by a federal district court for unconscionable delays in responding to the plaintiff’s discovery requests.
  • The trial is scheduled to take place this Ssummer.

2. Department of Justice Shifts to the State’s Side on Texas Voter ID Suit

  • In a February 28 interview with the Texas Standard, (link to audio here: http://www.texasstandard.org/stories/justice-department-drops-opposition-to-texas-voter-id-law), election law expert Richard Hasen discussed the decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to end its legal opposition to the Texas Voter I.D. law.
  • With Jeff Sessions in charge at the Department of Justice, and with anticipated conservative justices appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the position of the plaintiffs is now more precarious.
  • This follow-up story from Slate covered the most recent trial court hearing; the plaintiffs described the judge as skeptical of the State’s argument.

3. Regional Briefs

  • Voter assistance or improper electioneering in Robstown, Texas? – KRISTV (the NBC affiliate TV station in Corpus Christi) has this interesting story about a candidate who was elected to a local utility district seat in November after assisting voters with their ballots.
    • In response to the argument that the candidate’s presence in the polling place constituted electioneering, the city manager pointed out that voters who are unable to read or mark a ballot are legally permitted to ask for and receive polling place assistance from a candidate.
  • Errors in 2016 election likely the result of voter confusion, not intentional fraud –
    • This story from Mysanantonio.com expresses the position of Bexar County election officials that to the extent voters with photo I.D.s may have completed affidavits alleging a lack of sufficient I.D. prior to voting, the erroneous use of the affidavits was likely a consequence of the confusing shifts in state voter I.D. procedures that were rolled out just prior to the November 2016 election, and not reflective of a pattern of intentional voter fraud.