By: James Tarbox
The United States Department of Justice has challenged the newly adopted Congressional redistricting plan enacted by the Texas State Legislature. The Department of Justice argues that the plan violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which requires that minority groups be fairly represented in Congress. Texas is one of fifteen states under Department of Justice orders to seek and have approval granted for changes that are made to Congressional redistricting maps. In its filing with the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, the Department argues that the redistricting plan, as it would be implemented, creates no additional Latino or opportunity districts for recognized minorities.
After the 2010 Census, Texas was allotted four more Congressional districts due to population growth. Much of this growth was attributed to minority communities. Democrats in Texas, as well as groups representing minorities, have argued that the new districts do not properly represent this minority population growth. They argue that the new districts pack minorities into the same districts and thereby do not allot enough Congressional seats to properly represent the minority population. They claim by not adopting new districts that account for the minority population growth, Texas is disenfranchising the minority voters according to the Justice Department.
The question that must be asked is whether the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are still relevant and needed in this day and age. Is it necessary to provide minorities with guaranteed representation in Congress? To be honest, my only personal interaction with a judicially enforced minority district is the seventh district in Alabama. This district covers portions of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and all the way down to Montgomery. In a conversation with a friend, my friend wanted to know why the district was so large. More importantly, why does the district cover parts of three municipalities, two of which are the largest in the state? My friend wished that this district was not so gerrymandered. Looking at a Congressional map of Alabama, one can see how the boundary lines of AL-7 seem to have no rhyme or reason. However, it is clear to see that the district runs straight through AL-6 and contains the City of Birmingham, a majority African-American city. I asked this person, “Would you rather the district be split with no guaranteed representation, or would you rather it stay close to the way it is with a guaranteed representative of minority status?” This question is one that must be asked today when discussing the relevancy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Have minorities come far enough in the battle for equality that the provisions of the Act are no longer needed? In Alabama, I would argue that they have, at least on a smaller level. One has to look no further than a special election in Cullman, AL in January 2008. Cullman, which used to be known as a “sun down town”, elected James Fields as a state representative. Fields, an African-American, was elected in a majority white district. While this is only one example of a minority winning an election as a minority in the district, it is evidence that even in a part of Alabama considered to be divided along racial lines, an African-American can still get elected. Based upon this limited evidence, I would still argue that perhaps it is time to end the application of the Act. When it comes down to it, in Alabama anyways, if a district encompasses a large metropolitan area, there is a good chance that there will be a large number of minority voters. Voters who are organized in groups by interests can wield great amounts of power by providing a voting bloc to certain candidates. So how is this relevant to Texas?
In Texas, the issue is whether the districts fairly represent the population segments. Currently, Texas is under judicial order to ensure that there is representation for minorities. Under the new districting plan, minorities still retain the same number of Congressional districts as under the 2000 Census redistricting plan. However, minority group leaders argue that there should be more because of the actual population break-down in Texas. Since 2000, the Hispanic population in Texas has grown from 32 percent up to 37.2 percent of the total population. Additionally, of all the population growth in Texas, 89 percent was non-white. These numbers leave critics calling for an increase in both Hispanic and African-American districts. Currently, there are 9 Hispanic districts. Critics are now calling for this number to be increased to 13 or 14 districts.
I will be completely honest, even if I looked at a district map of Texas, I could not tell you where there are majority minority areas. None of the current news articles on the topic discuss geographic layouts of the districts. Every representative in Congress represents around 700,000 people. While a representative could represent one small area with 700,000 people, he or she could represent part of an urban area and part of a more suburban or rural area. If the Hispanic population masses are in a contained area, the lines could be drawn to guarantee a Hispanic representative. But back comes the relevancy question of the Act. Is it necessary to provide districts for minorities simply because there has been a history of under-representation and discrimination? How long do we have to atone for the errors of those in the Civil Rights era?
I would argue that there is not a need to guarantee representation. Our country has come a long way since 1965, and I believe that the vast majority of people have moved past that era in our history. That is not to say that everyone, white, black, Hispanic, etc., does not hold a preference for voting for their own race. However, it is time to move forward. We should not be electing candidates based upon the color of their skin, but by the merits of their campaign. Politics will never be fair. Someone will always have more money, more connections, and less ethical standards than other candidates. It does not matter where you live, there will be a politician fitting the politician mold. Additionally, there will always be the incumbency advantage. When I took an American politics class in my undergraduate curriculum, the incumbency re-election rate was around 97 percent. I am sure this percentage has fallen with the Congressional elections of 2008 and 2010, but it is still high.
Looking at the numbers in Texas, there will be a time, even if not now, where Hispanics will be able to use their population numbers to heavily influence the outcome of elections. While the current voting population percentage of Hispanics is 24 percent, this number will steadily grow. With over 37 percent of the total population of Texas, I would imagine that 24 percent will soon be over 30 percent. Even if Congressional district lines are not drawn to guarantee a Hispanic representative, by organizing and getting out the vote, Hispanics will still be able to have candidates elected. It’s all about running successful campaigns and getting prospective voters to support your candidate. That being said, I believe that the Republican-held legislature in Texas did go too far, if the allegations are correct. The Hispanic population cannot be crammed into one area. The population could have been spread out. It should be remembered that it only takes 50 percent plus one vote to win an election. Even as someone who is a Republican and wants the Republicans to maintain a firm grasp on Congressional seats in Texas, I believe that there should be opposition in a district. In fact, I think that opposition and healthy campaigns are good things. When a politician faces opposition, he or she is forced to uphold campaign promises and actually govern instead of being a do-nothing kind of politician.
When it comes down to it, I believe that the Texas redistricting plan will be overruled by the courts. This is due to the fact the Voting Rights Act is still being actively enforced by the Justice Department. While Texas can fight the federal government, based upon the current allegations, I do not believe that it will be able to win in full and keep its current redistricting plan. In order to make the Act fully obsolete, I believe that it should be phased out in stages. This phasing out can be accomplished by limiting the number of new districts that can be guaranteed for minority representation. So instead of giving 13 guaranteed districts, the court could order 11 guaranteed minority districts. At the same time, it should be made known that the Act is being phased out and that this result is a compromise. Obviously everyone would not be happy about this solution. However, for those people advocating for guaranteed minority representation and gerrymandered districts reflecting as such, this would be a fair compromise over completely ending the implementation of the Act all at once.
What is funny in all of this is that this will not be the first time that Texas has seen its redistricting plan shot down by the courts. Its plan following the 2000 census was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2006. Texas needs to figure out how to better draw lines to ensure that legal battles do not ensue after their implementation (assuming that the Voting Rights Act is continued to be upheld and implemented by the courts). There is a lot to be said for “to the victors go the spoils.” In this case, the Republican-led Texas State Legislature acted on this principle. However, Texas must follow court orders. Even if the Congressional districts are drawn in a manner that spreads the wealth around to minority groups, Hispanics still only currently represent 24 percent of the voting population. It is true that eventually this 24 percent will grow to be much larger; however, for the time being, Republicans can remain in control with good campaigning and by ensuring that once elected, they govern in an ethical manner.
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