Eric Gay/AP/File
An election official checks a voter's photo identification at an early voting polling site in Austin, Texas, in 2014. Voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts are two ways that the GOP-controlled legislature has sought to weaken minority voting power, argue voting rights advocates.

Will gerrymandering ruling turn Texas blue?

In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of federal judges invalidated three Texas districts late Friday, saying the GOP-controlled state legislature had unconstitutionally drawn boundaries to discriminate against minorities.

In the ongoing struggle over voting rights in Texas, a federal ruling may have given voting rights advocates reason to hope.

On Friday evening, a panel of federal judges in the Western District of Texas ruled 2-1 that three Congressional districts must be redrawn. The two judges who sided with the plaintiffs found that the way in which these three districts were drawn amounted to an unconstitutional dilution of the Hispanic vote. The ruling affects the districts currently represented by Reps. Blake Farenthold (R), Will Hurd (R), and Lloyd Doggett (D).

It remains unclear how significant an electoral impact the judgement will have. But voting rights advocates are already framing the San Antonio-based court’s decision as a victory – and possibly a sign of changing times. It has been particularly lauded by Democrats, who have typically been the beneficiaries of the growing Texas Hispanic vote at the ballot box.

"The San Antonio Federal District Court ruled that Texas Republicans intentionally discriminated against Texas’ diverse new majority," said Gilberto Hinojosa, the state Democratic Party chairman, The Hill reported. "Republicans have ensured that the dark days of discrimination in Texas continue to loom, but the sun will soon shine. In time, justice prevails."

Redistricting has long been a potent political issue in Texas, where the state legislature controls the map-drawing process. Both parties jockey to create so-called “sweetheart” districts that distribute voters in a way that makes it easier for their party to win seats. 

But in some cases, critics allege, this behavior not only impedes democracy but may even violate the Constitution – a charge that has previously taken Texas redistricting challenges all the way to the Supreme Court.

The case decided Friday dates back to 2010, when population growth in Texas gave the state four more Congressional seats. But Republicans, who controlled the state legislature, distributed these seats in a discriminatory way, the plaintiffs argued. They noted that Hispanics – who accounted for two-thirds of all new residents of the state – were "packed" into some districts and "cracked" between others in order to limit their influence at the ballot box.

The San Antonio-based court had previously found that the new districts violated a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to seek federal approval before changing their election procedures. But when that provision was struck down as archaic in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), rights advocates decided to re-litigate the suit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits the dilution of the minority vote.

On Friday, the federal judges supported that position.

"The Court finds that this evidence persuasively demonstrates that mapdrawers intentionally packed and cracked on the basis of race ... with the intent to dilute minority voting strength," wrote Judges Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando Garcia. 

In their ruling, they described "strong racial tension and heated debate about Latinos, Spanish-speaking people, undocumented immigrants, and sanctuary cities" as the backdrop to the gerrymandered districts and voter ID laws introduced in the state. In 2015, 39 percent of Texas residents identified as Hispanic or Latino, reported the US Census Bureau.

Some suggest the ruling could fuel a parallel push to get the court to classify a recent voter ID law as discriminatory. The law, which supporters say helps to deter voter fraud, was weakened by a federal appeals court ahead of the November 2016 election, but still ranks as one of the strongest nationwide.

Others hope that it will encourage state lawmakers to overhaul the redistricting system. In an editorial last week, the Dallas Morning News advocated for an independent commission, urging state legislators to support two bills on the topic.

“Voters should pick their politicians. Politicians shouldn't pick their voters,” it concluded.

But it’s unclear what immediate impact the court’s decision will have. Even if both invalidated seats currently held by Texas Republicans went blue, Democrats would still be well short of a majority in Texas and the House of Representatives as a whole. There is no timetable or roadmap for changing the voided districts, and Texas can still appeal the decision.

The White House’s attitude may also play a role. Whereas the Obama administration brought the might of the Justice Department to bear on gerrymandering in Texas, President Trump has so far signaled a very different approach, from his unsubstantiated claims of "voter fraud" to his executive orders on immigration.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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