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Analysis: A law that lets political majorities cheat — and win

Another federal judge has ruled that Texas legislators intentionally discriminated on the basis of race when changing voting and election laws. But even if the laws change back, the state still got away with it.

Voters wait in line at the University of Texas Co-op to cast their ballots in the March 1, 2016 primary elections.

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Holy cow — now there's another ruling against Texas election law. Once again, a federal judge has found that the state's lawmakers intentionally discriminated on the basis of race when they were changing voting rules.

If this happens enough times, the state might actually be forced to change its ways.

In last month’s redistricting ruling from a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio, and in this week’s ruling on Voter ID, Texas was called out for intentional racial discrimination.

The state seems to be doing everything in its power to prove that it cannot be trusted with voting rights.

Maybe that’s no surprise. You know what political people are like: They're the kind of people who bend and stretch the rules to make sure they'll win. They cut corners when they think nobody is looking. They do every single thing they think they can get away with.

The winners get to run the government.

But some rules cannot safely be broken. Some corners cannot be cut — if only because so many competitors are watching. It’s all under surveillance. The facts might come out right away, they might come out later, but a cut corner in a redistricting or voting fight eventually comes out. Cheaters get caught.

That’s not really news. Everybody in the game knows that’s the game. So when people cut corners, consider their motives. Are they just dumb? Or are they betting that the advantage of cutting the corner will be worth the trouble?

In voting and redistricting law, states that aren't required to get pre-approval from the feds to change their regulations get a huge time advantage, conducting their elections under cheaters' rules until the judges force them to stop. When federal “pre-clearance” is in place — the result of previous violations — changes only occur after a review of whether anyone cut corners.

It’s like suspecting someone cheated in a marathon and letting the winner keep the prize money while authorities investigate whether it was a fair race. You might get the trophy back, but the money would be long spent.

It doesn’t do the losers in a voting case much good to find out they were right all along if they had to spend half a decade or more being governed by the winners of what might delicately be called fraudulent elections.

This cheating is nothing new here. Texas got caught for intentional and habitual discrimination ages ago and was on the aforementioned federal pre-clearance list for years.  

That list was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, though justices left in place a provision that allows new offenders to be subjected to pre-clearance. The courts haven’t put Texas back on the list yet, but they’ve said everything short of it.

Until they do, Texas Republicans remain in the position to make changes that help their own candidates, knowing that even when the courts swat them for it, they'll get an election or two out of the way under their own rules.

Had the state been subject to federal pre-clearance, neither the current redistricting maps nor the voter ID law would be in use. But it wasn’t, and they are.

The problems noted by the judges in the redistricting case are baked into the maps used for the state’s congressional elections in 2014 and 2016 (maybe the Texas House, too, but that expected ruling from the same panel has not been issued). The voter ID law is newer, but the people it blocked were counted among the Texans who didn’t make it to the polls last year.

You hear this argument all over the place, but this time, it’s true: The party affiliation of the rule-benders and breakers doesn’t really matter. Republicans are in control now, but Democrats did their version of this in Texas when they were in control.

It’s the nature of these beasts. They’ll do whatever they think they can get away with, and they’ll do it until and unless the courts force them to stop.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • A state that wants to grow by freeing growing economic engines from regulations and taxes is throttling its cities and school districts with regulations and taxes.
  • The state has a Rainy Day Fund with billions of dollars in it, but Texas lawmakers would rather use accounting tricks to balance their next budget.
  • The death of a teen on the run from the state's foster care system stirs deeper questions: Why aren't these programs working, and who will be held to account for that?

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