Voting Rights Act Decision: Supreme Court Takes Its First Victims in Texas
It was President Lyndon Baines Johnson — a Texas Democrat — who signed into law and implemented our nation's most sweeping, historic protections of civil rights ever codified: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In working together with congress, the legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson was defined as an era in which civil rights were expanded and protected, and democracy in practice became closer to democracy in its ideal.
To look at Texas today, it is unimaginable that it was a sitting Texan who signed into law and implemented an expansion of civil rights and the welfare state. To review the actions of Texas today is to reveal a missed opportunity; a potential not just unrealized, but fundamentally reversed.
Today, in the shadow of the Supreme Court's decision to cripple the protections of the Voting Rights Act, the state of Texas reacted by implementing a voter ID law and a redistricting map, both of which were previously withheld under the civil rights legislation.
Due to Texas' pre-clearance requirement imposed by Section 4, the court had reviewed the laws and found, unanimously, that they were retrogressive in practice and consequently violated the VRA. Texas planned to appeal both decisions, but since the Supreme Court rendered pre-clearance unenforceable, the decisions no longer held and the state decided to implement the laws without hesitation. Literally, less than two hours after the opinion was handed down, Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the voter ID law would go into effect immediately, and likely also the unfairly drawn, discriminatory districts.
In less than two hours after the historic legislation was rendered impotent, the court's decision effectively claimed its first victims: the lawful citizens of the state which helped bear the era of Civil Rights into existence.
The voter ID law — SB 14 — was billed by the review court itself as "the most stringent in the country," and was struck down because the justices found the law "imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor." The law significantly narrows the types of ID that may be presented at the polls to verify one's identity, so that items which were formerly acceptable — such as student IDs, expired driver's licenses, and utility bills — will no longer be permissible.
Instead, a voter must present with one of five types of permissible photos IDs. If a voter is not in possession of one, one must obtain an "Election Identification Certificate" (EIC) from a local DPS office. The court noted that while, technically, the law prohibits the DPS from collecting fees for issuing one of these IDs, the requirement itself is not without costs.
In order to obtain an EIC, an individual had to present several legal verifications of identity. The court found that obtaining a copy of these documents costs a significant amount of money. The cheapest route, however, is to obtain a copy of a birth certificate for $22. The court found this fee excessive, especially when other states had created more flexible options, which provided easier access for citizens with less means.
Per review by the offices of the Attorney General, it was noted that getting to a DPS office would be logistically burdensome, not only for those who were unable to drive, but also because the offices operate with limited weekday hours, and 81 of the state's 254 counties (32%) did not have an operational DPS office. Of those which did have a DPS office, 34 counties had offices which were open for only two days or less (20%).
Given this discrepancy, the court had "little trouble" finding that the law was more burdensome and constituted a retrogressive effect.
While the court found the voter ID law retrogressive, it did not claim that Texas intended to discriminate. However, the findings of the court in regards to the redistricting maps tell a dramatically different story. In reviewing Texas' redistricting, the court found not just evidence of retrogression, but evidence of a clear pattern of discrimination in the state's attempts to draw boundaries for federal congressional districts and state house districts.
On reviewing congressional districts, the court found that the redrawn maps disproportionately negatively affected black districts by discriminatorily drawing out the locations of their established congressional offices, and removing districts' economic engines.
The court's investigation found that "No such surgery was performed on the districts of Anglo incumbents. In fact, every Anglo member of Congress retained his or her district office." In certain cases, Anglo districts were redrawn to include certain country clubs, and one was redrawn to include the school of a representative's relative. When the courts asked Texas to explain this finding, they were told it was a coincidence. The court did not take kindly to this and found, ultimately:
"The only explanation Texas offers for this pattern is 'coincidence.' But if this was coincidence, it was a striking one indeed. It is difficult to believe that pure chance would lead to such results. The State also argues that it 'attempted to accommodate unsolicited requests from a bipartisan group of lawmakers,' and that '[w]ithout hearing from the members, the mapdrawers did not know where district offices were located.' But we find this hard to believe as well. We are confident that the mapdrawers can not only draw maps but read them, and the locations of these district offices were not secret. The improbability of these events alone could well qualify as a 'clear pattern, unexplainable on grounds other than race,' and lead us to infer a discriminatory purpose behind the Congressional Plan."
When it came to reviewing districts for the State House, the court found not just evidence of a plan to disenfranchise Latino voters of a district, but to also obscure this disenfranchisement as meeting the legal threshold under the VRA. Specifically, the court found that the map for was drawn to "elect the Anglo-preferred candidate yet ... look like a Hispanic ability district on paper." Per the court's findings:
"They accomplished this by switching high-turnout for low-turnout Hispanic voters, hoping to keep the SSVR level just high enough to pass muster under the VRA while changing the district into one that performed for Anglo voters. This testimony is concerning because it shows a deliberate, race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote."
In further support of the court's findings of discrimination, they noted the testimony of the lead map maker, Gerardo Interiano — who ultimately testified that he did not take racial bias into account, or use the software at his disposal to create the noted aberration. The court found that his testimony was "incredible," and not as in "awesome", but as in "fundamentally unreliable." Per the court's findings:
"The implausibility of Interiano's professed ignorance of these functions suggests that Texas had something to hide in the way it used racial data to draw district lines. The data about which Interiano claimed ignorance could have allowed him to split voting precincts along racial (but not political) lines in precisely the manner the United States and the Intervenors allege occurred."
At this point, the consequences of the decision of the Supreme Court seem dangerous. Less than two hours after the Supreme Court declared, "Our country has changed," Texas — home of the president who signed the very legislation that was struck down — proved otherwise. In what can only be called an unashamed political maneuver, Attorney General Gregg Abbott codified the very discrimination that Texan and former President Lyndon Baines Johnson had fought so violently to oppose.
Not only is this absurd because, clearly, once challenged both laws will be struck down again, but also because it flies in the face of what we as a country have strived for, and what we know we are capable of. While there's a silver lining in that section 5 was preserved, and Roberts' opinion on section four was arguably fair, the sentiment behind it is false and we should not be tricked.
Our country may have changed, but it is not healed. Our society has improved, but it can still disenfranchise the powerless. We, as a people, are improving, but Justice Roberts is incorrect to imply that we may no longer need the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Becuase we, at the very least, know Texas does.