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Legal rulings could force Texas back into federal oversight

| Friday, April 21, 2017, 6:27 p.m.

AUSTIN, Texas — A run of legal defeats over its voting laws means Texas could risk becoming the first state forced back into federal oversight since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act four years ago.

The justices' 2013 ruling struck down a provision in the 1965 law that required Texas and other states with troubled histories of racial discrimination to “pre-clear” any voting law changes with the federal government before enacting them. However, it left standing a scarcely used provision in the act that minority groups are now embracing as an emergency brake.

Under the provision, the preclearance mandate can be restored if a state is found to intentionally discriminate against minorities. Thursday, a federal court reached that conclusion about Texas for the third time in roughly a month — decisions dealing with its voter ID law and Republican-drawn electoral maps.

The possibility of Texas returning to federal oversight is likely still down the road since more pressing for Democrats now is getting a federal court to order new Texas voting maps for 2018 after racial gerrymandering and voter dilution were found in the ones originally drafted by Republicans in 2011. The latest 2-1 decision by a federal panel in San Antonio this week found race was used in statehouse redistricting to intentionally “undermine Latino voting opportunity.”

New maps could make some congressional Republicans in Texas more vulnerable in the first midterm elections under President Trump, and potentially swing seats to Democrats in the Legislature, where Republicans currently have overwhelming control.

But opponents of Texas' voting laws say they will press courts to again require the state to fall under federal “preclearance” before changing future voting laws.

Similar efforts are also unfolding in North Carolina, where a voter ID law that was struck down as racially discriminatory could be taken up by the Supreme Court early as Monday.

“You've had now six court rulings that have found intentional discrimination,” said Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia, who chairs Texas' Latino legislative caucus. “If that's not enough to (restore preclearance), I don't know what is.”

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said this week he is confident the state will prevail. His stance is that the recent redistricting rulings are moot because they pertain to maps that were redrawn by courts before ever being used in an election.

The original maps were drawn after the release of 2010 U.S. Census Bureau figures that showed Hispanics accounting for two of every three new Texas residents in the previous decade.

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