ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A federal gerrymandering case could give Democrats a chance to pick up a couple of seats in Congress in an unlikely place - Texas. Over five years, court rulings have found that Texas lawmakers discriminated against minority voters when they redrew political maps and passed voter ID laws. A panel of judges in San Antonio heard the case this month and will soon issue a ruling that could have long-term consequences for Texas and other states facing similar issues. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has more.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: For the last six years, San Antonio lawyer Jose Garza has represented Texas Latinos in the federal gerrymandering case in Texas. Garza says emails revealed during the trials showed how the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature slyly redrew Hispanic voting districts to favor Republican candidates.
JOSE GARZA: And what the map drawers indicated they were doing in these emails is they would identify low-turnout Latino majority voting precincts and flip them in for high-turnout Latino majority voting precincts. So they would flip out the performing voting precincts and flip in the nonperforming voting precincts. And so on paper the district would look like a strong Latino district, but what they've done was make it weaker.
GOODWYN: Earlier this spring, U.S. district judges Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando Garcia wrote, instead of using race to provide equal electoral opportunity, the Texas Legislature intentionally used it to undermine Latino voting opportunity. They concluded the evidence demonstrated that Texas intentionally discriminated against its Hispanic voters. But the state's political leaders maintain the judges are wrong.
KEL SELIGER: Clearly it is a partisan process, and nobody makes any bones about that. But intentional discrimination? No.
GOODWYN: Kel Seliger is a prominent Republican senator from Amarillo who chaired that body's select committee on redistricting. Senator Seliger says it's not true that the legislature intentionally discriminated against Hispanic voters, the six federal courts that have ruled otherwise notwithstanding.
SELIGER: Very often we look at how the people vote. But did - at any time did somebody say, this district has a lot of Latinos, let's divide it up or pack it or something like that? Never was I in discussion of anything like that.
GOODWYN: Texas's legal argument has always been that the Legislature wasn't discriminating against Hispanics per se; the Legislature was discriminating against Democrats, which is legal, at least for now. The problem for Texas is that when the Democrats you want to redistrict into electoral oblivion are Hispanic, that makes it legally tricky. And state history is a problem, too. Texas has been found guilty of state and federal voting rights violations in each and every decade back through the 1970s. So Texas has to lug this reputation before the federal bench in these voter ID and gerrymandering cases, and it's definitely not helping.
MICHAEL LI: The question of whether Texas gets put back under federal supervision is probably going to come later in the year.
GOODWYN: Michael Li is the senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's law school. Li says the state, having just been freed from federal oversight by the U.S. Supreme Court, could be put right back in if Texas loses this case heard in San Antonio last week.
LI: The first thing the court is going to want to do is supervise the process of redrawing the maps. After that, the court will take up the issue of whether Texas should be put back under federal supervision using Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. And that could be a really momentous decision.
GOODWYN: That would mean all future changes to voting in Texas would again be subject to federal review. But how much would that matter, really, with politically supportive Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department? Li says that's certainly a short-term advantage for Texas. The problem is there's no guarantee how long a sympathetic attorney general will be in place. But for Texas Senator Kel Seliger, he's not worried one way or the other.
SELIGER: No, sir, because the maps will still be drawn by Republican-dominated legislative bodies. The Democrats at this point - this really isn't humorous, but the Democrats at this point constitute no threat to the Republican Party in the state of Texas right now.
GOODWYN: But as the partisan battalions form up for battle over control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the possibility of picking up two freshly drawn congressional seats in Texas of all places could very well make a close race even closer. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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