Point Austin: The Way Things Are

Another win for judicial fairness leads to … more unfairness at the polls

Point Austin

The decision was not terribly surprising. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled that Senate Bill 14, enacted by the Texas Legislature in 2011, "was passed, at least in part, with a discriminatory intent in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965." Ramos was reiterating her October 2014 opinion (based on the original trial record) that found the Texas voter ID law established "an unconstitutional poll tax … creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose."

Although the decision is likely to be appealed by Attorney General Ken Paxton, it does represent another confirmation that the state has been operating under unconstitutional voting rules for years (decades, in fact), and that the voting system as designed discriminates against African-American and Latino-American citizens. I'd write "minorities," but in fact it's worth recalling that as of the 2010 census, Texas has become a "majority-minority" state.

That fact suggests some of the desperation underlying these persistent attempts by Anglo Republican officials, accustomed to being in charge of everything Texan, to make certain that the way things are remain the way things are. It was only last month that another federal court ruled that the 2011 congressional district maps, drawn by that same Legislature, unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of race. That decision as well will likely move to the U.S. Supreme Court, newly fortified by the GOP theft of another seat. The state GOP response to the latest decision includes the claim that they're about to enact a new voter ID law, and shouldn't the courts wait for that? Very reassuring.

To The Victors …

There were plenty of immediate reactions to the Ramos decision, and that of state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, is a fair summation of the Democratic response. "Today's victory belongs to all Texans, for state-sponsored discrimination undermines the legitimacy of our elections. Although this ruling is gratifying," Rodriguez said, "let me be clear: the Mexican American Leg­is­lative Caucus told the Texas Legis­lat­ure in 2011 that SB 14 would discriminate against Latinos. Republicans shoved it down our throats anyway. We cannot afford to allow politically motivated majorities in the Legislature to disregard the Constitution and pass discriminatory legislation, leaving civil rights advocates to fight uphill battles for years against the taxpayer-funded Texas Attorney General's Office for any chance at recourse. …"

Rodriguez called for the full restoration of the Voting Rights Act – the law that the voter ID requirements violated – raising the possibility that Texas would be required to return to "preclearance": U.S. Department of Justice review prior to any electoral changes that might produce similar racial discrimination. It's a fond hope, and small comfort now that the DOJ is in the hands of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose declared priorities are deporting undocumented immigrants, defending police departments, and reinforcing the war on drugs.

In the voter ID case, Sessions' DOJ had withdrawn federal support for the argument that the Texas law is intentionally discriminatory. It's sheer coincidence, you see, that laws explicitly designed to make it extremely difficult for Democratic candidates to win elections – witness the aggressively unfair gerrymandering of the Travis County congressional delegation – only succeed by effectively disenfranchising black and brown voters. Judges may rule otherwise, but while courts ponder, election after election delivers for the GOP's Anglo hegemony.

Mission Accomplished

Perhaps the most salient details of the voter ID and redistricting decisions are the dates. Aggrieved plaintiffs in 2017 are still litigating legislative actions that occurred in 2011, and in fact the present GOP regime was originally enabled by former majority leader Tom DeLay's ramrodding of state and congressional re-redistricting in 2003. The current leadership learned its lesson well: Courts can opine as they will, again and again, but the state and national GOP are playing the long game. By the time the courts get around to judgment, the elections have long since been decided and the rules of the game reinforced. Witness the strong-armed ascension of Neil Gorsuch.

As I wrote last month, the bank robbers shrug, "It's true, we stole the money, but it's already been spent, and we don't give refunds." As Judge Ramos wrote, "So not only did SB 14 not accomplish what it was supposed to [ostensibly addressing nonexistent 'voter fraud'], it did accomplish that which it was not supposed to do" – that is, disenfranchising minority voters to the overwhelming advantage of Republican candidates. By fundamentally illegitimate means, the GOP has staved off the political consequences of demographic change.

At the national level as in Texas, the party holds all the reins of government, and it remains for the opposition – Democrats or otherwise – to persist in the relentless electoral groundwork that can overcome a system designed instead to reward raw power. Like the judge's ruling, that too is not terribly surprising.

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Point Austin, Voter ID, 85th Lege, Ken Paxton, Jeff Sessions, Eddie Rodriguez, Tom DeLay, Nelva Gonzalez Ramos

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