50 years ago, a battle over redistricting changed Texas
The recent Republican-dominated redistricting in Texas has proven to be another enterprise in drawing maps that sap voting strength from communities of color. This is despite Latino population growth being the overwhelmingly primary factor in Texas adding two new congressional seats. Texas also saw substantial population shifts to the urban areas which was not reflected in the state house redistrict map.
These discriminatory practices have sullied Texas’ redistricting efforts for decades. To remedy that, the offending maps frequently end up being challenged in the federal courts. Which is what happened in during the 1970s redistricting battle. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and result profoundly changed Texas.
In 1971, Democrats controlled Texas and intended to keep it that way. These were white, conservative Dixiecrats. That year, their redistricting scheme relied heavily on massive multi-member House districts to dilute the voting power of the state’s growing African American and Latino communities.
These multi-member districts were super-sized areas that elected at least two representatives. At that time Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, a Democrat, argued this was just an easier way to draw legislative maps.
“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,” said Barnes.
Then, like now, the Texas House had 150 house seats...but the plan Democrats' passed divided the state into 79 single member districts and 11 multimember districts. The map drew legal challenges, calling it unconstitutional. Eventually, in February of 1973, the case — “White v. Regester” — was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Now Texas is a large state as is known but it's not only a large one, but it also has a shape and it does not render it very easily susceptible to a division among districts,” said Leon Jaworski, the attorney arguing for the state.
He told the court that Texas doesn’t discriminate against voters based on race.
“It is untrue that there is any showing whatsoever that there has been any such happenings, any sort of racial violation with respect to the electoral process in our state,” Jaworski said.
One of the three attorneys arguing against the map was David Richards. He pointed out that Texas actually had a long and robust history of racial discrimination at the polls.
“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 deter black voting,” said Richards.
A central argument against the state’s multimember districts was that their size made it nearly impossible for non-white candidates to get elected. A candidate who ran to represent a minority-majority portion of the district had to win the majority vote of the entire district, which was 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,” Jaworski said.
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,” said Idar.
Idar said it was unrealistic to expect a group oppressed for generations to suddenly be able to fundraise, compete in an area of over a thousand square miles and win over white voters who were hostile to Mexican American candidates.
“Our minority in Bexar County has been totally submerged,” he said.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that multimember districts in Dallas and Bexar counties were unconstitutional and did improperly dilute the voting power of communities of color. Soon after, other urban multimember districts in Texas, and across the South, were broken up too.
Reflecting on the case, David Richards says White v. Regester dramatically changed how voting maps were drawn. But Richards, who is also the ex-husband of former governor Ann Richards, says that under today’s Supreme Court it’s being watered down.
“The notion of White v. Regester — that is fencing out minority voters or minimizing their impact — I assume is still a legal principle. The willingness at least at the Supreme Court level to apply it seems to have waned pretty seriously,” he said.
Which could explain why today’s arguments over racially unfair redistricting maps don’t have the effect they did 50 years ago.