The courts won’t save Texas from voter suppression in 2020. But voters can.

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So much for the major firewall that guarded against voting or election changes hurting African American or Hispanic voters. 

Voting rights groups in Texas went to court seeking federal approval of any changes to election laws – a provision afforded states that have a history of voter discrimination under the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act. But a federal court in San Antonio reluctantly ruled last month it could not place Texas under federal supervision when drawing new congressional and state legislative district lines in 2021.

“Texas has a long history of enacting discriminatory voter laws intended to suppress the vote of minority communities,” Tommy Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, said in an interview. “Every redistricting session that Texas has gone through for the past 48 some-odd years, it’s been subject to preclearance.”

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively terminated the preclearance system. 

“The decision in Shelby County opened the floodgates to laws restricting voting throughout the United States,” says the Brennan Center for Justice. “The effects were immediate. Within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo ID law.”

What happens when Texas doesn’t have federal supervision 

Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of Common Cause Texas, told The Signal he was dismayed by the fact that Texas would not have federal oversight for the 2020 elections.

“It’s much bigger than gerrymandering or trying to protect Texans from discrimination in the next round of redistricting,” Gutierrez said. “This applies to changes in any voting laws in Texas.”

Gutierrez said that if Texas had been under federal preclearance, a string of attempted voter suppression efforts this year may have never occurred.

“In this last legislative session there was a bill, Senate Bill 9, that it did a whole range of really terrible things, the most blatant one that people point to is that if you made a mistake on a voter registration form whether it was deliberate or not, it would carry criminal penalties– which is just insane,” Gutierrez said.

“But I think that part of the reason the authors of that bill felt like they could introduce something like that and maybe push it through, maybe get it enacted into law, and maybe even survive a court challenge was because there was no preclearance provision,” Gutierrez said, also suspecting that former Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s attempted voter purge would have never come to fruition under preclearance.

Earlier this year, several formidable nonprofit groups filed a lawsuit against Whitley’s office for trying to purge 95,000 Texas voters. The lawsuit was eventually successful and the Texas officials backed down from, and apologized for, the voter purge.

Gutierrez seemed skeptical that Texas would get back under preclearance before 2020 and said that even if Texas was under preclearance, it’s unclear how the Trump administration would handle the provision.

Looking ahead 

The good news: the Voting Rights Act hasn’t gone anywhere. Policies or election laws that discriminate are still illegal and can still be challenged in court, but without federal preclearance, the process of battling against voter suppression is simply lengthier and more costly.

Above all, it means everyday Texans will have to play a bigger role in defending their own voting rights and elections.

Buser-Clancy said Texans would need to press state leaders for a fair and transparent redistricting process and attend upcoming field hearings held by lawmakers to voice their concerns about redistricting.

For the 2020 election, he said Texans should be on the lookout for subtle voter suppression tactics and should also make sure their local counties are able to handle the expected boom in turnout so that long lines don’t discourage voters. 

Above all, vote. 

“The best way to ensure voting rights are maintained is for everybody to actually go out and use their right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said.

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