Federal Court Prepares To Consider Texas Gerrymandering Case
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Next week, a federal court will consider whether Texas should change its political boundaries before the 2018 election. For the past several years, the state has held elections with interim congressional and state house districts in place. Courts had ruled its original maps discriminated against minorities. The plaintiffs in this case say current maps haven't fixed that problem, as Ashley Lopez with member station KUT in Austin reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Mandy Blott woke up after the presidential election last year and decided she was going to become more politically active. So she did what a lot of people do. She looked up her member of Congress.
MANDY BLOTT: And it was a complete shock to me. I had no idea that I had a Republican representative. And honestly I completely assumed that the entire city of Austin had a Democratic representative.
LOPEZ: Blott lives in one of the several congressional districts that touch Austin city limits. And even though Austin is largely considered the most liberal city in Texas, only one of those congressional seats is held by a Democrat. And that district is a block away from Blott's house.
BLOTT: So I can walk to the border of the district between Roger Williams - my district - and Lloyd Doggett in probably three minutes. That's how close it is. I literally can just walk around the block and be in the other district.
LOPEZ: Blott lives in East Austin. It's one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. That line she's talking about breaks up her neighborhood between a Republican-leaning district that snakes up to Fort Worth and a Democrat-leaning district that goes all the way down to San Antonio. Michael Li with the Brennan Center for Justice represents plaintiffs in this case.
MICHAEL LI: Austin doesn't actually have a member of Congress who firmly represents Austin. And in fact 4 of the 5 districts are controlled by Republicans, which is also not very reflective of Austin politics.
LOPEZ: The Supreme Court hasn't weighed in on whether it's OK for state leaders across the country to divvy up political districts in a way that favors one party. But this past May, the court did rule that it's not OK to do that if it hurts minority voters in the process. And that's what attorney David Richards argues Texas lawmakers did several years ago.
DAVID RICHARDS: What happened in Texas and what happened elsewhere across the country is using race or ethnicity as a proxy for Democrats. So the state defends itself. We drew this plan not for any racial or ethnic purposes but just to protect Republicans.
LOPEZ: But Richards argues this disproportionately hurt black and Latino voters across Texas. And earlier this year, a federal court agreed. The court ruled state lawmakers violated the Voting Rights Act in 2011, and plaintiffs say the 2013 interim maps before the court now have many of the same issues.
BRENDAN STEINHAUSER: I do think this is mostly about political power.
LOPEZ: Brendan Steinhauser is a Republican strategist in Austin. He says he doesn't think Republican lawmakers set out to hurt minority voters. Steinhauser says because the minority population in Texas keeps growing, those voters are just more likely to be affected by redistricting.
STEINHAUSER: I also think that no matter how you cut up the maps in Texas or in other states, it's going to be difficult, and someone is going to feel left out.
LOPEZ: And because a federal court found the state intended to discriminate, attorney Michael Li says Texas could be required to have federal oversight of its election laws.
LI: I think everyone is closely watching to see whether Texas gets put back under federal supervision. It will be a key test of that provision the Voting Rights Act.
LOPEZ: A three-judge panel in San Antonio will spend five days hearing the case. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.
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