The Promise of the Voting Rights Act

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The Travis County Commissioners Court is engaged in redrawing the boundaries of our four commissioners’ precincts (we are limited to four by the Texas Constitution).  Meanwhile, the City of Austin is contemplating drawing six or more single-member districts for 2012.  As both efforts fall under the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the time seems ripe to discuss the promise of that Act, a federal provision with which I have some legacy familiarity.

Although my father Bob Eckhardt was elected to the U.S. Congress the year after the VRA was passed, he was a veteran of the redistricting battles in the Texas Legislature where ruling Dixiecrats drew districts to exclude African-Americans, labor and all else that threatened their hegemony over the state.  In a carefully brokered deal in 1965, my father redrew state legislative districts and congressional districts in Harris County to provide representation for the full spectrum of political interests.  Through building coalitions and careful collaboration with all interests, districts were drawn that supported the election of both a liberal Democrat (my father) and a moderate Republican (George H.W. Bush) to the U.S. House.  Due to the carefully drawn lines, Bush could not succeed against his conservative Democratic opponent without the support of African-American voters in his district.  That careful collaboration also resulted in Barbara Jordan finally winning a seat in the Texas Senate.  In the 1970 redistricting, my father gave up important portions of his African-American constituency to create a new 18th Congressional District won by Barbara Jordan.  As a congressman he supported the 1970 application of the VRA to Texas in hopes that progress would continue to be made.

There is a kind of symmetry (albeit on a miniature scale) that I now redraw my own commissioner’s precinct, giving up the politically important and racially diverse constituency of Pflugerville to strengthen the proportion of African-American voters in Precinct One.  I cannot claim any heroism for this.  The promise of the VRA insists I do it.  But, I cannot let that boundary change or any of the other boundary changes we are considering go by without remarking on the profound effects the promise of the VRA has had and continues to have.

I draw a distinction between the “promise” of the VRA and the mere words of Section 5 of that Act.  The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature uses the words of VRA Section 5 to justify majority-Hispanic or “safe” districts in Central Texas as a means of damaging historic Democratic/Hispanic voting coalitions, minimizing the substantive representation of Hispanics and destroying the seniority of Texas Democrats in the U.S. House.  Whether Republicans of today or Dixiecrats of yesterday, winner-take-all politics by any name smells as foul.

Redistricting at the local level has an opportunity to be a study in contrast to the cynicism of the Texas Legislature.  The promise of the VRA can move us to redraw lines based not on maintaining one voice, but building on a chorus of voices that reflect the full spectrum of interests within the community.  Travis County has a demonstrated history of multiracial voting interests electing powerful and popular African-American and Hispanic countywide officials (e.g. County Judge Sam Biscoe and District Clerk Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza).  Given the cohesion of political interests in the community, one would think redistricting would be easy – yet we face some practical difficulties.

The principal difficulty is that Precinct Three is too large and Precinct Four is too small.  But, giving Precinct Three population to Precinct Four dilutes Precinct Four’s proportion of Hispanic voters.

Precinct One has many Hispanic voters to give to Precinct Four.  But, the Precinct One Hispanic voters on the border with Precinct Four live in neighborhoods that hold historic resonance for an African-American community that has declined in number and has largely migrated north.

Precinct Two has many of those African-American voters that have migrated north.  Including the racially diverse City of Pflugerville in Precinct One rebuilds Precinct One’s proportion of African-American voters.  But, it leaves Precinct Two underpopulated, which brings us full circle to the principal difficulty of population disparity and the holistic solution.

It is imperative that all four commissioners’ precincts be as equal in population as possible while being mindful of what interests make up those populations.  We cannot draw a “safe” African-American seat – their proportion of the population is no longer large enough in all of Travis County to constitute a majority in one of the four precincts.  But, we should consolidate African-American voting strength where we can.  Therefore, Precinct One should pick up Pflugerville from Precinct Two.  Precinct Two can offset its population loss by picking up population from the currently lopsided Precinct Three.

Whereas African-Americans represent 8.5% of Travis County’s population, Hispanics represent 33.5%.  We do and should continue to have a “safe” Hispanic seat in Precinct Four.  But, in so doing, we can best acknowledge the growing influence of the Hispanic vote on other voting coalitions in our County by growing Precinct Four to its optimal population parity with the other precincts.  Precinct Four should pick up population from both Precinct Three and Precinct One.

Yes, there is heartburn from these changes.  Yes, it will require building new alliances.  Precinct One will represent more moderate voters with greater racial and economic diversity.  Precinct Two will be less economically and racially diverse and almost entirely within the City of Austin.  While Precinct Three will represent fewer people, they will still be mostly white with a competitive percentage of Republicans.  And, while Precinct Four will represent more people, they will still be mostly Hispanic and overwhelmingly Democrats.  The incremental adjustments are appropriate – our constituencies change and the representation must change along with it. Viva la Voting Rights Act!

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