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How Texas used multi-member districts to weaken minority voting power

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1972 Texas state house multi-member district map that was ruled unconstitutional

It’s been observed that redistricting is the dark art of dividing up political power. There’s a lot a stake and there’s a lot to lose if your group is targeted to be cut out of having power and not giving a seat at the table in state government.

Texas is undergoing that process right now. Every 10 years new maps are drawn up. And new schemes are cooked up to slice up Texas in a way that benefits those in power at the cost of those who do not.

The driver of reapportionment is the latest census numbers which clocked Texas’ incredible growth and population shifts to the big urban counties while also metering the continued flight of folks from the already sparsely occupied rural, west and panhandle counties.

This is not a new trend. It was also in play half a century ago. And then like today the map makers weren’t playing around. They were dead set on preserving rural political power despite the fact that these areas didn’t have the population numbers to justify their over-representation in state government.

This also happened to be a division of population that falls along racial and ideological lines. The Democrats who ran Texas were conservative, white and male. And they made maps that re-elected candidates who were conservative white, male Democrats. And barred everyone else: African Americans, Latinos, independent liberals and Republicans.

In the 1970s there was a problem — there was a liberal U.S. Supreme Court and many of the Jim Crow tools of political oppression were ruled unconstitutional — the White Primary, where only white people could vote in the Democratic primary, the jaybird primary, the poll tax, annual voter registration — they were gone but Texas still had multi-member house districts.

A multi-member district is a super-sized area with at least two elected representatives coming from that area. For example in 1971 Dallas County was proposed to be a multimember district that would be divided into 18 sub-districts. A candidate who ran to represent a South Dallas area that is predominately African American would have to win a county wide vote.

At that time Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, a Democrat, said there was nothing nefarious with multimember districts this was just an easier way to draw legislative maps.

“It would be a very difficult task for us timewise to divide the state into 150 individual districts. If we are going to go the individual districts route it’s going to take a great deal of staff work, getting census tracks in all the urban areas some of them have not even been made officially public yet,” he said.

After a 10 hour heated floor debate on the floor of the Texas House a map with multiple multi-member districts was passed. The plan called for dividing Texas into 79 single member districts and 11 multimember districts.

Rep. Rex Braun, a Houston Democrat, was one of the loudest opponents and predicted this map wouldn’t pass the courts.

“Well of course it’s almost a joke when you see an area like Dallas still running at large after many court rulings,” said Braun.

He was right.

Soon after four lawsuits were filed challenging the constitutionality of the House map and claiming it discriminated against minorities in Texas.

The four suits were combined into one called White v. Regester. And on Feb. 26, 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case.

“Now Texas is a large state as is known but it's not only a large one, but it is also has a shape and it does not render it very easily susceptible to a division among districts,” said Leon Jaworski arguing for Texas.

Jaworski also told the Supreme Court that Texas doesn’t discriminate against voters based on race.

“Here is no one that would deny that Texas has true what so many of the states has a racial legacy. It is untrue that there is any showing whatever that there has been any such happenings, any sort of racial violation with respect to the electoral process in our state,” he said.

David Richards was one of three attorneys arguing that the Texas house map was unconstitutional. He pointed out to the court that Texas does in fact actually have a long and robust history of racial discrimination at the polls.

“The record which shows that in 1956 there is testimony that black voters presented themselves and propose in a Democratic Primary in Dallas until they could not vote there.  I think the case has been — the poll tax, the case has been the substitution for poll tax, the annual registration system. I think the record will show other factors which in fact did detour black voting,” said Richards.

A central argument against multimember districts is that they discriminated against minorities because they are so big. A candidate who runs to represent a minority majority portion of the district most win the majority vote of the entire district which is majority white.

Jaworski said that argument didn’t hold true and used Bexar County to make his point.

“This is the County of San Antonio where a large segment of the population is Mexican American, actually 50% of them are. You don't have a minority there of Mexican Americans at all. The problem is been that less than 30% of more approximately 30% of them seek to exercise that privilege,” said Jaworski.

Ed Idar representing MALDEF, The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, responded.

“So, in reply to that question why don't we vote, we need to assess a situation of the Mexican American actually has developed in the history of this country. In 1972 we cannot wipe out all of these hindrances and then overnight expect the injured group to be able to compete on an equal footing with those people who have never been hindered,” he said.

Idar said it was unrealistic to expect that a group that has been oppressed for generations to suddenly be able to fund raise and compete in appealing to an electorate close to 1 million in an area of over 1,000 square miles and in an atmosphere that was hostile to Mexican American candidates. At the time White voters in Bexar County voted against Latino candidates nine to one.

“Our minority in Bexar County has been totally submerged,” Idar said.

Richards told the court the situation was similar in Dallas County but with the deck stacked against Black candidates and the organization DCRG was holding all the cards — that’s the Dallas Committee for Responsible Government.

“What this record further shows is that the dominant political organization of that county, the DCRG, when circumstances require and their candidates are threatened by a black candidate or by a candidate that has the support of the Negro minority, they simply try out the old game of race in order to win,” Richards said.

Richards said the DCRG would mail flyers to Dallas County White voters with photographs of the candidates and the message was clear.

“They were obliterated in the white precincts and were defeated very sizably,” he said.

Idar told the court that mailers with photographs were unnecessary in Bexar County because a candidate’s last name would relay if the candidate was Latino.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that multimember districts in Dallas and Bexar diluted the voting power of communities of color and was unconstitutional. Soon after other urban multimember districts in Texas and across the South were challenged and broken up.

The impact was a revolution in the Texas House of Representatives that opened the Capitol doors to African Americans, Latinos, Liberal Independents and Republicans.

Now – 50 years later David Richards looks back at this battle successful battle and sees a repeat – map making tricks are still being deployed to keep communities of color from electing their representatives.

Everybody knows blacks vote for Democrats. So if you split them up, it's going to reduce democratic strength and in the process reduce black strength. That seems to be, unfortunately, some of the reasoning or some of the thinking but no one would admit it, he said.

Richards said the problem is the U.S. Supreme Court is much more conservative and the courts over-all rejection of dealing with political gerrymandering — which leads to fewer swing districts and fertile soil for political extremists winning office.

But looking at these redistricting battles, which happen every decade, we tend to look at them as individual instances and not as episodes in a series where the plot remains the same and only the characters change. Looking at a state’s repeated history of violating voting rights and discriminating against minority voters and putting in place a system to prevent that from happening again and again that’s what the Voting Rights Act did. Unfortunately the U.S. Supreme Court gutted it.

Climate Change

It’s getting hotter in Texas and it’s going to keep getting hotter – this is going to cost the state in economic development, agriculture and in human lives.

This is the finding of a new report released Thursday – that lays out climate change is making Texas far more vulnerable to extreme weather events.

John Nielsen-Gammon is the author of the report: “Assessment of historic and future trends of extreme weather in Texas." He is he Texas State Climatologist and atmospheric sciences professor at Texas A&M University.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi