New Democrat-led Senate could save Texas from its own gerrymandering

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Democrats scooped two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia on Tuesday, giving them a small majority in the upper chamber.

That means the legislative blockade by Sen. Mitch McConnell is gone, and the bills he once scuttled upon arrival in the Senate have a real chance of becoming law in 2021. 

Prior to the Trump-inspired attack on Congress, Democrat leadership was already talking about using their newfound majority to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a bill that would strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 2013, a landmark Supreme Court decision gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that previously saw states like Texas with a history of  racist voter suppression subject to federal oversight called “preclearance.” 

That preclearance ensured that election-related changes — including redistricting — had to be first approved by the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for D.C.

More specifically, preclearance forced county officials and lawmakers to prove that any election-related changes did not violate the core tenets of the Voting Rights Act, that no one could be denied or abridged the right to vote because of the color of their skin or race. 

In 2013, the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder allowed Texas to escape that federal preclearance. The justices argued that the coverage formula used to determine which states were subject to preclearance was based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.

The same day as the ruling, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state’s strict voter ID law, which was defeated a year earlier by civil rights groups that successfully sought preclearance in federal court, would now go into effect along with the gerrymandered redistricting maps passed by the state legislature.

Several years of bills and election-related changes to suppress and discourage voting followed suit. 

In 2019, House Democrats passed legislation to restore sections of the Voting Rights Act to their full authority by creating new criteria or coverage formula for when states or election officials were in violation of the Voting Rights Act and needed to be subject to preclearance once again. 

Following the death of  Rep. John Lewis, the legislation was renamed in his honor and introduced into the Senate, where it has been stalled since. 

Matt Simpson, a policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, said the legislation would be critical for a state like Texas with a recent history of voter suppression.

“It would be a huge boon to ensuring fairness in Texas elections,” Simpson said. “We would likely see a much more fair redistricting map that would avoid discriminatory gerrymandering that has happened decade after decade in Texas.”

Simpson said he hoped language in the new law would also allow for the possibility for federal courts to act against partisan gerrymandering too.

“In Texas, partisan gerrymandering has been part and parcel to discriminatory and racial gerrymandering,” Simpson said. “An effort to curtail partisan gerrymandering might well have the desired effect of reducing racial and discriminatory gerrymandering.”

Evidence of that came in 2019 when the files of a deceased GOP strategist, Thomas B. Hofeller (dubbed by the New York Times as the GOP’s “Michelangelo of gerrymandering) revealed a plot to change how district lines were drawn in Texas that would have made them, in Hofeller’s analysis, “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”

With Texas gearing up for a fight over redistricting and Republicans still in charge of the state, the new Congress will have to move fast to prevent the state from passing racist or gerrymandered federal and state district lines.

Redistricting bills will be filed along with other legislation this session until the filing deadline in March. Texas is expected to gain two additional U.S. House seats this redistricting cycle due to population gain. 

Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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