AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday he would ask a court to require Texas to get prior approval before making any changes to Texas’ election laws. The move represents the Obama administration’s first major response to a recent Supreme Court decision requiring Congress to make changes to the Voting Rights Act.
Here’s a look at the status of voting rights lawsuits in Texas:
TEXAS AND THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
Until last month, Texas was one of 16 jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required to have its election changes pre-cleared by either the Department of Justice or the Washington District Court. Congress had determined that these jurisdictions had a history of using election laws to prevent or deter minorities from voting.
On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress needed to change how jurisdictions are chosen to be on the list, and until they do, that part of the Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced. Therefore, Texas laws no longer need preclearance to change election laws.
In 2011, the Republican majority in the Texas Legislature passed a requirement that voters provide a state-issued photo identification card before casting their ballots. After the Justice Department failed to approve the law, the state asked the Washington court to review it. A three judge panel determined the law “imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor and racial minorities in Texas” and threw out the law as unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court decision last month took away the Washington court’s authority to block the law, and it is now in effect.
Along with every other state, the Texas Legislature redrew political boundaries in 2011 based on population changes reflected in the 2010 census. It submitted the new maps to a different three-judge panel in Washington for preclearance.
While the Washington judges considered the maps, a San Antonio court drew temporary maps for the 2012 election. On Aug. 28, 2012, the Washington court ruled that minority groups “provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here” and threw the maps out.
The Supreme Court’s decision also removed the court’s authority to block the maps, but by then the Texas Legislature had adopted new ones.
After the Washington court found that the 2011 maps were discriminatory, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the Legislature to officially adopt the temporary maps drawn by the federal judges in San Antonio. That happened in June.
Abbott argued that this should solve Texas’ redistricting lawsuit, but the federal judges have allowed the case to go on. Minority groups asked the San Antonio court to declare that all Texas election laws should be pre-cleared by federal judges because the Washington court found “intentional discrimination.” That is an option under the Voting Rights Act.
Holder’s announcement on Thursday that the Justice Department will support this request will bolster the minority group’s argument.
The three judges in San Antonio, two of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, must decide two questions.
First, did the temporary maps they drew for 2012 go far enough to correct the intentional discrimination found by their colleague in Washington? If not, they will draw new maps for the 2014 election and probably delay the March 4 primary.
Second, they must decide if the recent court cases prove that Texas lawmakers cannot be trusted to change election laws without a federal judge overseeing them.
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