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The U.S. Department of Justice is throwing its weight into the legal fight over Texas’ newly drawn maps for Congress and the state House, filing a lawsuit Monday that claims Texas lawmakers discriminated against voters of color by denying Latino and Black voters equal opportunities to participate in the voting process and elect their preferred candidates.
The Biden administration filed its lawsuit in federal court in Texas, joining what’s expected to be a protracted fight over the political boundaries the state will use for elections to come. It joins a collection of individual voters and organizations representing voters of color that have already sued the state over maps that help solidify the GOP’s dominance while weakening the influence of voters of color.
The maps face at least five legal challenges based on claims that the districts drawn by the Texas Legislature are unconstitutional and violate the federal Voting Rights Act because they diminish the voting strength of voters of color.
The justice department suit also asks the federal court to block the state from conducting the upcoming March primaries under the challenged maps.
At a press conference Monday, U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said the maps passed into law by the Republican-controlled Legislature showed an "overall disregard for the massive minority population growth" the state experienced over the last decade.
"Our investigation determined that Texas' redistricting plans will dilute the increased minority voting strength that should have developed from these significant demographic shifts," Gupta said.
Texas lawmakers this year took on the work of redistricting to incorporate a decade of population growth into the state’s maps and equalize the population of districts. But their work, signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, was largely not reflective of the state's growth, 95% of which was attributable to people of color.
Republicans opted to give white voters effective control of the two new congressional districts the state gained because of its explosive population growth, even though the state's white population has remained relatively stagnant. The state's new congressional map also reduces the number of districts with a Hispanic voting majority from eight to seven, while the number of districts with Black residents as the majority of eligible voters drops from one to zero. Half of the 4 million residents the state gained in the past 10 years were Hispanic.
In its complaint, the DOJ takes specific aim at the redrawing of the 23rd Congressional District in West Texas, a long fought-over district, which it argues was reconfigured by switching out voters and splitting precincts so that the final product would "eliminate a Latino electoral opportunity." The DOJ also points to the configuration of districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where it argues the map "effectively turns back a decade of rapid Latino population growth and preserves Anglo control of most remaining districts."
Republicans redrew congressional districts in the area with almost surgical precision, stranding urban and suburban voters of color in vast rural districts.
The department is also challenging Texas' new state House map where it argues lawmakers eliminated Latino electoral opportunities "through manipulation or outright elimination of districts where Latino communities previously had elected their preferred candidates."
The map drops the number of districts in which Hispanics make up the majority of eligible voters from 33 to 30.
Throughout the redistricting process, Republicans argued their maps comply with federal laws protecting voters of color from discrimination, though they declined to offer specifics about their legal analysis.
"The Department of Justice's absurd lawsuit against our state is the Biden Administration's latest ploy to control Texas voters," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a post on Twitter. "I am confident that our legislature's redistricting decisions will be proven lawful, and this preposterous attempt to sway democracy will fail."
Decade after decade, including after the 2011 redistricting cycle, the state has faced allegations — and subsequent federal court rulings — that lawmakers discriminated against voters of color, intentionally working to undermine the power of their votes.
Monday's announcement signals that the administration is taking a more significant role in the state’s redistricting fight after the Trump administration switched sides in favor of the state at the tail end of litigation over the last round of redistricting, which also landed the state in federal court over similar allegations. It also underscored the changing legal landscape for voting rights in the country.
This year’s political mapmaking marked the first time in nearly half a century that Texas lawmakers were free to redraw the state’s maps without federal oversight, known as preclearance, that was meant to protect voters of color from discrimination. Texas regularly ran afoul of that protection, which blocked the state's voting laws and maps from immediately going into effect, but the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved that protection in a 2013 ruling.
"Were that preclearance tool still in place, we would likely not be here today announcing this complaint," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Monday.