Texas still needs the Voting Rights Act — at least for now. While there are parts of the VRA that may be outdated, and while it is probably fair that the law unfairly frames only Southern states as needing voting oversight, it is difficult to imagine a more terrible political environment for a replacement law to be created in.
The questions asked by the five conservative justices in the Supreme Court this week all pointed to a very skeptical view of section 5 of the VRA, which gives the federal government special powers to block redistricting plans and voting procedures that would make it especially difficult for minorities voters to be heard.
If the provision were to be struck down, civil rights groups would immediately begin lobbying Congress from all sides for a replacement; and given that Republicans aren’t even sure how to attract minorities to the party when talking about every day issues, it’s difficult to conceive of a more paralyzing problem.
In the meantime, Texas is still known for passing voting laws that at least appear to be directly aimed at restricting minorities from having as much voting power as they should. So, while the VRA is certainly imperfect, Texas is case in point that it is a necessary measure against preventing voter discrimination until a better law can be passed – and that time is not now.
The defendant in the case before the Supreme Court is Shelby County, Alabama, which — in part — is arguing that many of the districts in their county subject to Section 5 actually have higher voter turnout for African American counties than states in the North. And while that might be true for Shelby County, that’s not Texas’ problem — there, Latinos are the ones facing voter discrimination.
Texas was initially added to the law in the 1970s because it refused to offer ballots in different languages. More than 35 years later in 2012, it was still fighting those same battles. In August of last year, a federal court unanimously struck down the state's redistricting plan after the 2010 census because it was the product of “discriminatory intent.”
While Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott argued that the districts were a function of politically-motivated gerrymandering — which, by the way, is perfectly legal — the court rejected his arguments and cited a number of examples of district gutting in Hispanic communities, and even black communities, that weren’t present in white communities.
In one instance in West Texas, the judge who authored the opinion (a George W. Bush appointee) said the maps replaced “many of the district’s active Hispanic voters with low-turnout Hispanic voters in an effort to strengthen the power of … Anglo citizens” and make the district more Republican.
This isn’t the only violation of the VRA Texas has under its belt. Only a week after a federal court tossed the redistricting maps, a different court tossed the Texas voter ID law, saying it was discriminatory and violated the VRA.
“The State of Texas enacted a voter ID law that — at least to our knowledge — is the most stringent in the country,” the opinion reads. “That law will almost certainly have retrogressive effect: it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. And crucially, the Texas legislature defeated several amendments that could have made this a far closer case.”
While criticisms of the Voting Rights Act are fair and will warrant a replacement in the event that the law is struck down, it is unlikely any such substitute law could pass through Congress at this turbulent political time. While that is obviously not the Supreme Court’s concern, it is to be hoped that the law will be preserved for as long as it takes for Congress to come to its senses and discuss the issue of race intelligently.