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DOJ is suing Texas, saying its redistricting plans put some voters at a disadvantage

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. Justice Department is suing Texas again. Federal authorities say the state's new redistricting plans violate the Voting Rights Act. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta outlined the lawsuit at a news conference in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

VANITA GUPTA: These redistricting plans will diminish the opportunities for Latino and Black voters in Texas to elect their preferred representatives, and that is prohibited by federal law.

CORNISH: NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following this story. She's here now to talk more about it.

Welcome back.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: So this is the first lawsuit that the Justice Department has done during this redistricting cycle. Why target Texas?

JOHNSON: Justice Department leaders say we need to start with the numbers to understand this case. Between 2010 and 2020, Texas grew in population by nearly 4 million people, and 95% of those people were minorities - mostly Latino, Black and Asian people. But when lawmakers in Texas gathered to draw new maps, the DOJ says, they blew past those numbers. Here's Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

GUPTA: For example, Texas will gain two new congressional seats because of its population growth, almost all of which is due to growth in the state's minority population. However, Texas has designed both of those new seats to have white voting majorities.

JOHNSON: The DOJ is asking a federal court to block Texas from using those new maps and to redraw the congressional and state House districts on an interim basis before then.

CORNISH: And the response from Texas so far?

JOHNSON: Well, state Attorney General Ken Paxton says he's not impressed with this case. He says the Department of Justice's absurd lawsuit against our state is the latest ploy to control Texas voters. He says he's confident the legislators' redistricting decisions will be proven lawful, and this what he calls preposterous attempt to sway democracy will fail.

CORNISH: Now, I was under the impression after a Supreme Court ruling from a few years ago, it's much more difficult to bring these kinds of cases. Can you give us some context?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it's important to remember we're in a different era now legally. This is the first redistricting cycle since 1960, where the Justice Department no longer has the power to review voting changes in places with a history of discrimination before they take effect. In 2013, the Supreme Court threw out a key part of the Voting Rights Act that allowed for that kind of federal preclearance. Here's how Attorney General Merrick Garland described this situation today.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

MERRICK GARDLAND: There are two problems. One - it means that we don't get a chance to look at these things before they go into effect, which is a very significant aspect of our tools, and instead requires that we challenge every case individually. And second - it flips the burden of proof. So those are the two most significant changes.

JOHNSON: Just to underscore, the Supreme Court's moves on voting rights over the last decade now put the burden of proof on the Justice Department. That can be a difficult hurdle in a lot of cases, since the court basically says, if you're doing this for reasons of partisanship, it's OK; if you're doing it for reasons of discrimination, it's not OK.

CORNISH: The Justice Department says this new case is the first over redistricting. Should we expect more action on it?

JOHNSON: We should. DOJ has doubled the number of voting enforcement lawyers this year in the Biden administration. In the last week or so, it's moved to weigh in on different voting challenges in places like Arizona and Florida. Both Attorney General Merrick Garland and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said their staff members are very busy looking at the facts and the laws in other states around the country. But remember - those legal hurdles are high, so it's not sure what kind of success they're going to meet in federal courts around the country.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

Thanks for your reporting.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.