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Justice Department challenges new Texas congressional map

Administration contends redistricting plan would diminish opportunities for Latino, Black voters to elect preferred representatives

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, shown in October, on Monday  called on Congress to update the Voting Rights Act.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, shown in October, on Monday called on Congress to update the Voting Rights Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Biden administration on Monday launched its first effort to block a new congressional map under the Voting Rights Act, with a Justice Department lawsuit that accuses Texas of diluting the power of minority voters.

The DOJ challenge adds to a crush of litigation the state faces in advance of its March primary, one of the first scheduled elections for maps redrawn after the 2020 census. The state already faces half a dozen lawsuits over the congressional plan, with allegations that include challenges to the legality of the special session used to draw the map and arguments that the redrawn lines dilute the power of growing minority communities.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said Texas’ 2021 redistricting plans were “enacted through a rushed process, with minimal opportunity for public comment, without any expert testimony, and with an overall disregard for the massive minority population growth in Texas over the last decade.”

Texas’ population grew by 4 million people from 2010 to 2020, with 95 percent of that growth from Black and Latino populations, and the state will gain two new congressional seats because of that, Gupta said at a news conference in Washington.

“However, Texas has designed both of those new seats to have white voting majorities,” Gupta said. “The congressional plan also deliberately reconfigured a West Texas district to eliminate the opportunity for Latino voters to elect a representative of their choice.”

That means the redistricting plans will diminish the opportunities for Latino and Black voters in Texas to elect their preferred representatives, “and that is prohibited by federal law,” Gupta said.

The complaint asks the court to prohibit Texas from conducting elections under the challenged plans; to order Texas to implement new redistricting plans; and to establish interim plans pending such a new redistricting.

The complaint also points out that the new redistricting plan “excised minority communities from the core of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (DFW) by attaching them to heavily Anglo rural counties, some more than a hundred miles away, placing them in a congressional district where they would lack equal electoral opportunity.”

With Democrats holding a five-seat majority in the House, maps in states like Texas could help decide control of that chamber in the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans currently hold a 23-13 edge in the state’s House delegation.

Under the new map, President Donald Trump would have carried 25 seats in Texas last fall, including the new Houston-area district, up from the 22 that he actually won. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the map an “F” rating on its report card, arguing it gave Republicans a disproportionate advantage compared to almost all other possible maps.

Texas was the only state to gain two seats in apportionment this cycle, largely due to growth in the state’s minority communities. The state drew its map in a special session after a several-month delay in delivery of the census results due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas was one of seven states covered by the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance provisions, which gave the Justice Department oversight over election changes, including congressional maps. The Justice Department’s lawsuit recounts decades of legal challenges to Texas redistricting maps.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Monday again called on Congress to update the Voting Rights Act following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down Section 4 of the law. That section created a formula for how Texas and other states with a history of discriminatory laws had to get Justice Department pre-clearance for new laws under Section 5.

The conservative justices who formed the majority called that formula outdated and said Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions.” Republicans have opposed Democratic legislation to pass a new law with a new pre-clearance formula.

Garland said the lack of pre-clearance under Section 5 means the Justice Department does not have the powerful tool of getting a chance to review election law changes before they go into effect, and it also flips the burden of proof onto the Justice Department.

“Were that pre-clearance tool still in place, we would likely not be here today, announcing this complaint,” Garland said at the news conference.

While the Democratically controlled House passed some form of a new VRA last Congress and earlier this year, the measure has so far stalled in the Senate due to Republican opposition. Last month, the latest effort fell short of the 60-vote filibuster threshold after gaining the support of only one Republican, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

During Monday’s event, Garland highlighted Justice Department interventions in voting rights cases across the country — though this is the first dealing with congressional redistricting.

The Justice Department last month filed a separate lawsuit against Texas that alleges a new law improperly restricts the assistance voters who have a disability or who are unable to read or write can receive in the voting booth.

Last week, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in Arizona litigation to explain that challenges there had plausibly alleged that certain new voting laws in that state were passed with a discriminatory purpose.

The Justice Department also filed a statement of interest in Florida litigation to explain that private parties can bring claims to enforce the Voting Rights Act, Garland said.

That’s on top of an ongoing Justice Department lawsuit to challenge Georgia’s new voting law, contending that state lawmakers included provisions with the intent to make it more difficult for Black voters to cast ballots.

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