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Voting Rights Dispute Enters Another Round

Texas Republicans and Democrats are still at odds over voter ID and redistricting, but the venue has changed and now it's the Republicans on defense.

Texas and the Obama administration are at odds over the Voting Rights Act, but all that’s really changed is the venue.

In 2011, the Legislature drew new political maps, adjusting congressional and legislative districts to accommodate growth in the population and — since it was a Republican Legislature at the time — to try to ensure a Republican majority for the next decade. Democrats would have done the same thing, if they’d had a majority. We know that because that’s what happened in 1991.

Lawmakers adopted a tough law in 2011 requiring Texans to produce state-approved photo IDs before their votes can be counted.

Both the maps and the voter ID law got stuck in the federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court unstuck things earlier this summer with a ruling that effectively removed federal oversight over Texas election laws.

But the Department of Justice came charging back in, arguing in the redistricting case that Texas has a recent history of discrimination in its voting laws and ought to be asking for federal permission whenever it changes its election laws. Last month, the feds sued to block use of the voter ID law, saying it put an undue burden on the state’s poorest voters, who are also disproportionately minorities.

“The state of Texas’s history of official racial discrimination against its African-American and Hispanic citizens is longstanding and well-documented,” the federal lawyers wrote in their voter ID lawsuit. “Federal intervention has been necessary to eliminate numerous devices intentionally used to restrict minority voting in Texas.”

The public arguments here have a potayto-potahto quality to them. The law doesn’t prevent lawmakers from drawing political maps that give one party an advantage over its rivals. That’s politics. It does prevent them from drawing maps or changing election laws if the effect of those changes is to reduce or eliminate minority voting rights.

Since minority voters tend to vote for Democrats, and since most of the state’s legislative and congressional Democrats are also minorities, those two things are easy to conflate. Did things land where they landed because of politics, or because of race?

Both the maps and the voter ID law are now in federal court, with Democrats and the Obama administration moving aggressively on one side and Republicans and Texas statewide officeholders on the other. During the legislative sessions, the Republicans have been on offense with the Democrats on defense. Now, in court, those tables are turned — at least in the styling of the cases — and judges will work out the questions over politics, race and the law.

The prize? An advantage at the ballot box.

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