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How Section 5 blocked a GOP power grab in Texas

Update 6/25/2013: The Supreme Court Tuesday ruled that the coverage formula used to determine which areas are covered under Section 5 is unconstitutional.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (TX) claps and cheers next to his wife, Elizabeth Provencio, Right (short black hair) at the Mexican American Legislative Caucus's 40th Anniversary, which drew a crowd of thousands with dancing and music by the famous Latino...
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (TX) claps and cheers next to his wife, Elizabeth Provencio, Right (short black hair) at the Mexican American Legislative Caucus's...

Update 6/25/2013: The Supreme Court Tuesday ruled that the coverage formula used to determine which areas are covered under Section 5 is unconstitutional. The decision effectively ends Section 5 unless Congress comes up with a new formula.

AUSTIN, Texas — In 2008, Wendy Davis, a city councilmember in Fort Worth, Texas, narrowly defeated a 20-term incumbent to win a state Senate seat. Davis, a Democrat, enjoyed strong support from her district’s black and Hispanic voters, who had largely been ignored by her Republican predecessor, and once in office she set about fighting for those who she felt lacked a voice.

She worked to kick-start economic growth in poor neighborhoods, pushed for increased public-school funding, and cracked down on predatory lending practices targeting the poor. When Fort Worth kids were forced to crawl under idling trains to get to school, Davis won funding to fix the problem.

But Texas Republicans were eager to win back Davis' seat and increase their Senate majority. And in 2011, they used their control of the redistricting process to improve their chances.

Redistricting requires state and congressional district lines to be modified each decade to reflect the latest Census data. The GOP plan radically changed the demographic makeup of Davis' district, among others, moving tens of thousands of black and Hispanic voters into neighboring districts. In fact, of the 94 precincts that were over 70% minority, Republicans cut out 48 (see maps of District 10 below). In the new map, blacks and Hispanics were placed in separate districts from each other and were outnumbered by the white conservative majority, which tends to vote Republican.

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Davis and her constituents had one recourse: The Voting Rights Act. Under Section 5 of the landmark civil-rights law, election changes made in certain areas with a history of discrimination—including Texas and most other southern states—can be blocked by the federal government if they might reduce the voting power of minorities.

Though Davis is white and non-Hispanic, her background made her a good fit for the district’s minority community. Raised by a single mother with a sixth-grade education, Davis had herself become a single mother as a teen. She worked multiple jobs to put herself through college on scholarship. “I have a story that’s very similar to so many people that I see struggling in the district that I represent,” Davis said in an interview at her office at the state capitol in Austin.

Redistricting would make that story harder to tell. “They literally just ripped it apart,” Davis said of her district.

RELATED: HOW SECTION 5 STOPPED TEXAS'S 'POLL TAX'

The office of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who played a key role in the redistricting, did not respond to a request from msnbc for comment on the process.

The move didn’t just imperil Davis’ re-election. It took away the ability of minority voters to band together and elect the candidate they wanted—violating a core principle of most redistricting efforts to keep “communities of interest” together.

Minority voters, Davis said, “were being separated very purposely from each other—and therefore from the power to ever express their preference at the ballot box again.”

A federal court sided with Davis and the U.S. Justice Department last August--just months before the 2012 election—striking down Texas’ redistricting plan and ordering it to draw up new lines.

Her district substantially restored, Davis was re-elected last year by a nearly identical margin to her 2008 victory.

But redistricting happens every decade, and next time around, Davis and her constituents might not be able to count on Section 5. In February, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the provision which argued that it's unconstitutional to single out certain areas for special scrutiny. In a ruling to be announced this month, many court-watchers predict the justices will strike Section 5 down.

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