|U.S. Department of Justice |
Civil Rights Division
|Office of the Assistant Attorney General||Washington, DC 20530|
| ||November 16, 2001|
The Honorable Geoffrey Connor
Acting Secretary of State
P.O. Box 12060
Austin, Texas 78711-2060
Dear Secretary Connor:
This refers to the 2001 redistricting plan for the Texas House of Representatives, submitted to the Attorney General pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1973c. We received your submission on August 17, 2001; supplemental information was received through October 12, 2001.
We have considered carefully the information you have provided, as well as census data, comments and information from other interested parties, and other information. As discussed further below, I cannot conclude that the State's burden under Section 5 has been sustained in this instance. Therefore, on behalf of the Attorney General, I must object to the 2001 redistricting plan for the Texas House of Representatives.
The 2000 Census indicates that the State has a total population of 20,851,820, of whom 11.5 percent are African American and 31.9 percent are Hispanic. The State's voting age population (VAP) is 14,965,061, of whom 10.9 percent are African American and 28.6 percent are Hispanic. One of the most significant changes to the State's demography has been the increase in the Hispanic population. Between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic share of the State's population increased from 26 to 31.9 percent. Statewide, African American population remained stable.
Under the Voting Rights Act, a jurisdiction seeking to implement a proposed change affecting voting, such as a redistricting plan, must establish that, in comparison with the status quo, the change does not "lead to a retrogression" in the position of minority voters with respect to the "effective exercise of the electoral franchise." See Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130, 141 (1976). In addition, the jurisdiction must establish that the change was not adopted with an intent to retrogress. Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board, 528 U.S. 320, 340 (2000). Finally, the submitting authority has the burden of demonstrating that the proposed change has neither the prohibited purpose nor effect. Id. at 328; see also Procedures for the Administration of Section 5 (28 C.F.R. 51.52).
The constitutional requirement of one-person, one-vote mandated that the State reapportion the house districts in light of the population growth since the last decennial census. We note that the redistricting plan submitted by the State was passed by the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB), which had assumed reapportionment responsibility under Article III of the Texas Constitution after the State legislature was unable to enact a redistricting plan.
The LRB held a series of meetings and hearings, culminating with a meeting on July 24, 2001, at which it considered new plans submitted by LRB members. The LRB adopted three amendments making substantive changes to the plan then under consideration. These amendments consisted of approximately 14 discrete changes.
The Texas House of Representatives consists of 150 members elected from single-member districts to two-year terms. Under the existing plan, there are 57 districts that are combined majority minority in total population, and 53 are combined majority minority in voting age population. With regard to those with a majority minority voting age population, 31 districts have a majority Hispanic voting age population, seven have a majority black voting age population, and the remaining 15 districts have a combined minority majority voting age population. There are 27 districts where a majority of the registered voters have a Spanish surname.
An initial issue arises as to the appropriate standard for determining whether a district is one in which Hispanic voters can elect a candidate of choice. The State of Texas has provided, and accepted as a relevant consideration, Spanish-surnamed registered voter data as well as election return information and voting age population data from the census. We agree with the State's assessment, although we also consider comments from local individuals familiar with the area, historical election analysis, analysis of local housing trends, and other information intended to create an accurate picture of citizenship concerns. Campos v. Houston, 113 F.3d 544, 548 (5th Cir. 1997).
Our examination of the State's plan indicates that it will lead to a prohibited retrogression in the position of minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise by causing a net loss of three districts in which the minority community would have had the opportunity to elect its candidate of choice. Although there is an increase in the number of districts in which Hispanics are a majority of the voting age population, the number of districts in which the level of Spanish surnamed registration (SSRV) is more than 50 percent decreases by two as compared to the benchmark plan. Moreover, we note that in two additional districts SSRV has been reduced to the extent that the minority population in those districts can no longer elect a candidate of choice. In the State's plan these four reductions are only offset by the addition of a single new majority minority district - District 80 - leaving a net loss of three.
As described more fully below, when coupled with an analysis of election returns and other factors, we conclude that minority voting strength has been unnecessarily reduced in Bexar County, South Texas, and West Texas. Because retrogression is assessed on a state-wide basis, the State may remedy this impermissible retrogression either by restoring three districts from among these problem areas, by creating three viable new majority minority districts elsewhere in the State, or by some combination of these methods.
With regard to the problem areas we have identified, in Bexar County the 2000 Census data indicated that the county population constituted 10.4 ideal districts. As a result of the State's constitutional requirement of assigning a whole number of districts to the more populous counties, known as the "county line rule," the State reduced the number of districts in the county from 11 in the existing plan to 10. Although the State has admitted that the reduction to 10 would not have precluded it from maintaining the number of majority Hispanic districts at seven, it in fact chose to reduce that number to six. Initially, the State asserted that it had created an additional majority Hispanic district in Harris County so as to offset the loss of the Bexar County district and identified District 137 as a compensating district. Because the State's obligation under Section 5 is to ensure that the redistricting plan, as a whole, is not retrogressive, such a course of action is not impermissible. However, in the supplemental materials that were provided on October 10, 2001, the State notified us that if any district should be considered as the replacement, District 80 in South Texas - not District 137 - should be the one which offsets the loss of the majority Hispanic district in Bexar County.
When the State is considered as a whole, however, this argument is ultimately unpersuasive. While District 80 indeed adds an additional district in which Hispanic voters in South Texas will have the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, in two other districts, as discussed below, they lose this opportunity, resulting in the net loss for Hispanic voters of one district in South Texas.
In South Texas Hispanic voters will lose the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice in District 35. The new district is created from existing Districts 31 and 44 and pairs an nonminority and a Hispanic incumbent. The Hispanic incumbent currently represents a district which has a Spanish surname registration level of 55.6 percent; that level drops to 50.2 percent in the proposed plan while the Hispanic voting age population decreases from 57.8 to 52.1 percent. Over half (58%) of the new district's configuration is from the nonminority incumbent's former district. Our analysis indicates that District 35 as drawn will preclude Hispanic voters from electing their candidates of choice.
In addition, in Cameron County District 38 reverts to a configuration that previously precluded Hispanic residents from electing a candidate of their choice. The Spanish surnamed registration level is reduced from 70.8 to 60.7 percent, and the Hispanic voting age population decreases from 78.7 percent to 69.6 percent. The State removed over 40 percent of the core of existing District 38, 90 percent of whom are Hispanic persons, and replaced it with population that is 45 percent nonminority. While the Hispanic voters in District 38 still remain a majority of voters in the district, because the area is subject to polarized voting along racial lines and under the particular circumstances present in this district, it is doubtful that Hispanics will be able to elect their candidate of choice.
Finally, the districts adjacent to Districts 35 and 38 have levels of Spanish surnamed registered voters exceeding 80 percent, and Hispanic voting age population exceeding 90 percent, both of which are far beyond what is necessary for compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Thus the reductions in Districts 35 and 38 were avoidable had the State avoided packing Hispanic voters into the districts adjacent to them. Moreover, overall the State fragments the core of majority Hispanic districts in this area, thus affecting member-constituent relations and existing communities of interest in these districts at a disproportionately higher rate than it does other districts in this part of the State. This fragmentation is unnecessary and disadvantages Hispanic voters by requiring them to establish new relations with their elected representatives. It also deviates from the State's traditional redistricting principles in a manner that exacerbates the retrogression in South Texas.
As for West Texas, Hispanic voters lose the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice in proposed District 74. The Spanish surname registration level decreases from 64.5 to 48.7 percent, and the Hispanic voting age population decreases from 73.4 to 57.3 percent. Significantly, the State did not need to reconfigure existing District 74 because the existing configuration under the 2000 Census was underpopulated by only 894 persons, a deviation of 0.64 percent. Such unnecessary population movement supplements our finding in our election analysis that Hispanic voters in District 74 will suffer a retrogression in the effective exercise of the electoral franchise. See Guidance Concerning Redistricting and Retrogression under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1973c, 66 Fed. Reg. 5411, 5413 (Jan. 18, 2001).
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the submitting authority has the burden of showing that a submitted change has neither a discriminatory purpose nor a discriminatory effect. Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526 (1973); see also Procedures for the Administration of Section 5 (28 C.F.R. 51.52). In light of the considerations discussed above, I cannot conclude that your burden has been sustained in this instance. On behalf of the Attorney General, I must object to the 2001 redistricting plan for the Texas House of Representatives. Beyond the specific discussion above, however, in all other respects we find that the State has satisfied the burden of proof required by Section 5.
We note that under Section 5 you have the right to seek a declaratory judgment from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia that the proposed changes neither have the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. See 28 C.F.R. 51.44. In addition, you may request that the Attorney General reconsider the objection. See 28 C.F.R. 51.45. However, until the objection is withdrawn or a judgment from the District of Columbia Court is obtained, the redistricting plan continues to be legally unenforceable. Clark v. Roemer, 500 U.S. 646 (1991); 28 C.F.R. 51.10.
To enable us to meet our responsibility to enforce the Voting Rights Act, please inform us of the action the State of Texas plans to take concerning this matter. If you have any questions, you should call Mr. Robert Berman (202-307-3718), Deputy Chief of the Voting Section.
Ralph F. Boyd, Jr.
Assistant Attorney General
Civil Rights Division