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Fate of voting rights act weighs heavily in Texas

African-Americans line up to vote in the presidential election as a dog looks on November 4, 2008.
African-Americans line up to vote in the presidential election as a dog looks on November 4, 2008.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Among the decisions expected from the Supreme Court in June is one that could effectively wipe out the Voting Rights Act. In Texas, minority voters fear a possible loss of legal protection, but some states' rights activists are eager for change. David Martin Davies from the Fronteras Desk reports.

There are several history-making decisions expected to be handed down from the United States Supreme Court in June. One could effectively wipe out theVoting Rights Act. In Texas, minority voters fear a possible loss of legal protection, while states' rights activists are eager for a change.

At a recent San Antonio field hearing on redistricting Texas lawmakers once again got an earful about Congressional District maps that the courts have ruled discriminate against minorities.

Jose Garza testified for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. And he kept bringing up Section Five of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Supreme Court has ruled over and over and over again that the exclusive jurisdiction for making determinations under section five lies at the department of justice and with the district court in the district of Columbia and not with the local Texas court," Garza said.

Another activist testifying against the state’s maps was TC Calvert. And he noticed something when Section Five was mentioned.

"If you noticed the body language of the members of the committee today whenever Section Five of the Voting Rights Act came up, they were kind of squirmish. They don’t like to hear that because they want to do away with it," Calvert said

Section Five is a big part of the Voting Rights Act. It gives the Justice Department the power to protect minority voters in Texas, Arizona and most of the South, as well as some parts of California and other selected parts of the nation.

State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat, says it’s critical.

“Section Five is a very powerful tool, and it says before you can make changes to voting patterns you have to get preclearance. I feel that it’s important and necessary and it allows us to put the brakes on some bad ideas," Martinez Fischer said.

However, a ruling is expected soon from the U.S. Supreme Court that has the potential to strike down Section Five. High court watchers are waiting for the decision in the case of Shelby County Alabama v. Holder.

Shelby County argued the Voting Rights Act is an infringement on state rights and sovereignty. Conservatives who oppose the act contend that racial discrimination is no longer the massive problem it was in the days of Martin Luther King Jr.

Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation explained to the PBS Newshour the Voting Rights Act has outlived its intended purpose.

“Section Five was an emergency provision, it was supposed to be temporary, only supposed to last five years and it was put in place because of widespread and persistent discrimination. The conditions that justified it in 1965 don’t exist today," von Spakovsky said.

But Henry Flores, a political science professor at San Antonio’s St. Mary’s University, said there’s plenty of documented evidence of continued racial discrimination against minority voters in Texas.

“There are various jurisdictions and sub-jurisdictions in the state of Texas that would put up barriers to Latinos to vote. Our biggest weapon to those barriers has been Section Five of the Voting Rights Act," Flores said.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found the most recent Texas redistricting maps were discriminatory — deliberately drawn to weaken existing minority districts.

Flores said many voting rights advocates are feeling very queasy about this coming Supreme Court decision. One worry is that the court would strike down Section Five, but still keep the rest of the Voting Rights Act. That means the act would lose a big chunk of its enforcement power.

“They are the cops on the beat to make sure that jurisdictions that have been racially discriminatory in the election process mind their p’s and q’s," Flores said.

Activists fear that would allow any state to carry out last minute Election Day shenanigans, like moving polling sites from low income neighborhoods, not printing bilingual ballots, shortening voting hours, voter intimidation and other tricks that were in play before the Voting Rights Act.

And if Section Five is struck down, suddenly drawing election maps in states like Texas could be a whole lot quicker and easier.

“If you didn’t have the Voting Rights Act, you could draw the maps any which way you want to," Flores said.

And in a state like Texas, where minority populations are rapidly increasing, the political implications are huge.