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Travis tells federal judges GOP-drawn redistricting map is unfair

Monday, September 12, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Travis County protested its representation in state redistricting maps before a federal three-judge panel in San Antonio last week, emphasizing that no single Congressional district now represents the county’s common interests.


Travis County’s testimony stretched across two days, drilling down to the level of Congressional districts that represent Travis County’s specific priorities. Under the new maps, passed by the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature in June, Travis County would be divided among five separate Congressional districts, versus the current map, which gives incumbent Congressman Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat, the lion’s share of Travis County proper to represent in Washington DC.


“Cutting Travis County into five crooked congressional districts, each connected to distant communities across Texas, is maliciously designed to prevent any Austinite from service to our community in Washington during an entire decade,” Doggett said in a statement released with the map’s passage in June, calling for the plan’s rejection. “Whether, like me, Austin is the only place you’ve ever called home, or you are new to our community, all can see how Republicans cunningly schemed to deny a voice for our unique city.”


The maps must be approved by the US Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, which protect minority voting rights. The map also must withstand challenges such as those set out by Travis County. Intergovernmental liaison Deece Eckstein outlined the problems of the new map in a memorandum he sent to Commissioners Court on August 14.


“In none of those districts do Travis County voters have sufficient numbers to determine the outcome of an election,” Eckstein wrote. “As fact, in none of the proposed districts do Travis County residents make up more than 35% of the population, making it impossible for those voters to determine the choice of a member of Congress.  In practical terms, this means that none of the members of Congress selected under this plan will be primarily concerned with the well-being of Travis County, or its voters.”


Opponents of the redrawn Congressional maps, in testimony last week, emphasized that coalitions across ethnic groups in various regions of the state had no voice under the newly drawn map. Those areas included North Texas, Central Texas and Houston. Such protests would be challenges to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which addresses minority representation.


On Friday afternoon, attorney Renea Hicks, who represented Travis County’s interests in the last redistricting case, addressed Ryan Downton, who served as legal counsel for the Texas House redistricting map.


Downton did, and was expected to, admit that political interests were a part of various map decisions made during the session, as long as minority interests were not diluted under the standards of the Voting Rights Act. In his testimony, Downton repeatedly insisted those interests were not diluted.


The state gained four Congressional seats during the last census; at least two of them were expected to go to minority Democrats.


During Hicks’ time questioning Downton on Friday, he took an indirect route, walking Downton through the non-creation of a minority majority district in North Texas. Hicks implied it was possible in the Metroplex. The Metroplex minority district, according to testimony, was requested by Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, who represents both Travis and Bexar counties.


Downton insisted he could not create a district in North Texas with more than 45 percent minority participation. He also agreed he had not considered putting African Americans and Hispanics together in his map. Such a decision made it imperative to create a minority district in Central Texas.

The admission was important to Hicks because the new minority district, anchored in South San Antonio, was requested by Reps. Mike Villarreal and Joaquin Castro, rather than current incumbent Doggett. Castro now is running against Doggett in the Democratic primary. Given the law to protect minority voting strength first – and communities of interest second – it would appear the new San Antonio-anchored district has an advantage under the Voting Rights Act.


Travis County, however, pushed on with its argument that the minority majority or minority opportunity district could have gone elsewhere.


Hicks also insisted state leaders should have considered the volatility of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which now governs the minority count toward representation. Minority population estimates, Hicks insisted, lagged by three years, implying a serious undercount of potential minority voters.


Downton, questioned by Hicks, did admit he was not certain the fifth minority-heavy district in Travis County was required under the Voting Rights Act. Nor, he admitted, had he consulted with current Democratic congressional incumbents in San Antonio, relying on various Republican leaders for map input.


Hicks also focused on the narrow strip of land that focused the new Congressional District 35, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio. The district, as Hicks noted, is only three miles wide as it passes through the counties that connected the two major cities, providing little representation to rural counties in between such as Guadalupe.


The redistricting trial is expected to conclude Friday. The three-judge panel in San Antonio is not expected to rule before a panel of federal judges in Washington DC rule in a separate case on various pre-clearance issues, possibly by late October. All lawmakers must run under the newly drawn maps in 2012.

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