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A letter to John Cornyn, because Texas still needs the VRA

Host Melissa Harris-Perry offered a history lesson to the the senator who claims that Texas doesn't need Voting Rights Act reforms anymore.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks during an event, July 31, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks during an event, July 31, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In June, the Supreme Court invalidated the formula used by the 1965 Voting Rights Act to determine which states have to seek Department of Justice approval before implementing changes to their voting laws. Since then, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers has been working to update the formula. Just last week they introduced a bill to do just that.

Now, some Democrats think the bill does not go far enough. But other politicians are irritated that the new proposal would restore federal oversight of voting to their state.

My letter this week goes to the man who admits he can't understand why Texas should still have to seek pre-clearance. In fact, he went so far as to say that the new bill "discriminates against Texas."

Dear Senator John Cornyn,

It's me, Melissa. You told the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News:

"I don't understand the rationale for discriminating against places that have made huge leaps and improvements in terms of minority voter participation by continuing to treat them as if it's 1965."

You don't understand? Well, let me see if I can help. You are opposing a bipartisan bill (read it here) that will subject states with five voting rights violations in 15 years to greater federal scrutiny. Or one violation could be enough in an area with long-term low minority turnout. That means Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are in.

But it's not discrimination. It's a formula.

Now I know you want to focus on Texas' "huge leaps" in the last 50 years, but let's put those leaps in context – because Texas has quite a history. Back in 1848, even though a treaty ended the Mexican-American war and granted citizenship to Mexicans living in your state and others, Texas used English language proficiency, property requirements, violence and intimidation to keep them from voting.

During the Civil War in the 1860s, because Union troops never made any significant advance into Texas – well, your state became a place for slaveholders to stash their human property, while also suppressing news of Emancipation.

Then, after the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote in 1870, y'all down in Texas got real creative – not only implementing poll taxes and other Jim Crow voting tactics, but also creating the White Primary, which barred black voters from casting primary votes.

In 1917, your state banned interpreters for Spanish speaking voters at the Texas polls. And in 1962, residents in Houston's minority communities received false warnings they might be arrested at the polls if they had outstanding parking tickets – and Latinos in Rio Grande got letters saying it would be better to stay home rather than risk arrest.

Your state's history is relevant, Senator Cornyn, because it is a long and shameful litany of tools to abuse, coerce, and disenfranchise non-white voters in your state. For the past 50 years, the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act has limited your state's ability to continue that history – though some abuses did continue.

Like in Waller County, where strict voting registration rules allowed county officials to reject voter applications, mostly from students at the historically black Prairie View A&M University. And Texas was second only to Mississippi between 1982 and 2006 in the number of Justice Department objections under the VRA's Section 5. And it seems Texas couldn't wait to get back to even more aggressive efforts, because when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act last June, it took just hours for Attorney General Greg Abbott to announce that Texas would move forward with its voter-ID law.

A law that not only affects voters of color, but also disproportionately affects Texas women – including state Senator Wendy Davis! In the most recent election she had to sign an affidavit before casting her ballot because her voting record didn't include her middle name.

So Senator Cornyn, I hope these reminders help you understand why Texas should fall under any new formula for pre-clearance. It’s really not about discriminating against Texas. It is about Texas' history of discriminating against its own voters.