US Court Hears Texas Case That Threatens to Erode Black and Latino Voters’ Rights

Ed Pilkington / Guardian UK
US Court Hears Texas Case That Threatens to Erode Black and Latino Voters’ Rights Voting booths in Texas. (photo: AFP)

Galveston county appeals after its electoral maps were thrown out for ‘stark and jarring’ violations of Voting Rights Act

The most rightwing appeals court in the country has heard a case over discriminatory electoral maps in Galveston, Texas, which threatens to puncture a fresh hole in the already battered 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The US court of appeals for the fifth circuit, which has six of 17 active judges appointed by Donald Trump, heard a clash of views over whether Black and Latino minority voters could have their combined electoral voice protected.

The case, Petteway v Galveston County, risks removing the right of minority groups to join forces in so-called “coalition districts” to elect representatives of their choice.

In October, a federal district judge threw out new electoral maps drawn up by the Republican-controlled county, which eviscerated the only district out of four in which African American and Latino voters collectively were in the majority.

Judge Jeffrey Brown ruled that the eradication of the majority-minority district was a “stark and jarring” violation of the Voting Rights Act, describing the revised maps as “mean-spirited” and “egregious”.

The county appealed the judgment.

Addressing the full bench of the fifth circuit, Chad Dunn, the lawyer representing the Black and Latino voters who would in effect be disenfranchised by the new maps, gave an impassioned plea for their right to be heard. “Is it too much to ask for one seat at the table?” he asked.

Dunn added: “Justice in this case is allowing these people to retain their one voice. The majority will still control the policy issues of the day, and will win on many issues four to one. But these people know they have somebody to call who lives down the neighborhood from them, who knows them, who’s lived their experience.”

The stakes are high given that the act, one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement, has already been drastically weakened.

The US supreme court began the rot in its 2013 ruling Shelby County v Holder. That removed the requirement on specified jurisdictions mainly in the south that they could only make changes to electoral systems after they had sought approval from the federal justice department.

The end of the so-called “pre-clearance” requirement issued in a new era of voter suppression measures brought in largely by Republican legislatures across the country.

Should the fifth circuit side with Galveston county and allow the new maps to stand, that would further decimate the remaining portion of the VRA that still operates – section 2. It would end the right of different minority groups to work together in “coalitions” to achieve majority-minority districts.

Joseph Nixon, representing the county, told the appeal court judges that the text of the VRA does not mention coalitions of different minority voters. He argued that such electoral alliances should not be protected under the act.

Nixon argued that coalitions were political in nature, not racial, as they were designed to achieve political victories. He said: “You just keep stacking minorities until you get a district … There is a desire on behalf of different groups for a political coalition.”

Dunn countered the argument by pointing out that African American and Latino voters in Galveston county voted along similar lines, with about 85% backing Democratic candidates. By contrast, 85% of Galveston’s white electorate sides with Republicans.

The lawyer added that the principle of minority groups acting in concert to form coalition districts had been recognized by the federal courts as settled law for 40 years. He invoked the principle of stare decisis – the idea that judges should show respect to the earlier precedents set by their predecessors, in this case a 1987 ruling Lulac v Clements, which decided that coalitions of minority groups could bring claims under the act.

“It is the consistent application of the law that gives birth to the rule of law, and creates the confidence that holds our nation together,” he said.

The county includes Galveston Island, a barrier island on the Gulf coast of Texas which is the birthplace of Juneteenth, the official US holiday that celebrates the final end of slavery in the US. Of the county’s eligible voter population, 38% are Black and Latino and 56% are Anglo, as white people are known in Texas.

Residents of precinct 3, the one majority-minority district that would be destroyed under the new maps, are worried that should they lose the case it would demoralize African American and Latino voters.

“It’s already very difficult to get people to participate,” Roxy Hall Williamson, a community advocate from Galveston Island, told the Guardian last September. “Losing our precinct would definitely deter folks from running for office.”

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