Texas Voter ID Survives the Race Card

Thanks to the Supreme Court, the new Texas voter ID law was in effect when early voting began in the 2014 midterm. The court upheld the Fifth Circuit's stay pending appeal of an October 11, 2014 District Court injunction barring implementation of the law's voter ID provisions. The last-minute injunction was issued by Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in an opinion whose content and timing make it smell suspiciously like the grievance industry's race card.

[E]ven where specific discriminatory practices end, their effects persist. It takes time for those who have suffered discrimination to slowly assert their power.  Because of past discrimination and intimidation, there is a general pattern by African-Americans of not having the power to fully participate.

It smells that way because Ramos is channeling Rev. Peter Johnson, "an active force in the civil rights movement since the 1960s." Johnson apparently possessed Ramos by denouncing the "brutal, violent intimidation and terrorism that still exists in the State of Texas" because "east Texas is Mississippi 40 years ago." Although the abuse is "not as overt as it was yesterday" it still exists in the form of voter intimidation because "there are still Anglos at the polls who demand that minority voters identify themselves." Amazing.  Not only that Johnson would say it, but that Ramos would repeat it. Apparently, getting your name checked off a list on your way to the machine is as intimidating as paying a poll tax or being lynched.

Johnson's narrative is, according to Ramos, the "uncontroverted and shameful history" of Texas' suppression of the minority vote. And his conclusion that nothing has changed becomes her excuse for ignoring Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the 2013 decision that struck down preclearance, the most oppressive and discriminatory feature of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). If east Texas is still 1960s Mississippi, then Shelby County's requirement that "current burdens" imposed under the VRA "must be justified by current needs" doesn't apply, and white Texans deserve to have Judge Ramos in their face calling them racists.

To prove things are just the way they've always been, Ramos trots out a timeline that proves they aren't. At one time or another, the post-Reconstruction Democrats who once dominated Texas politics had white-only primaries, a literacy test, a poll tax, and annual reregistration. But there's a small problem. These abuses have about as much to do with the Texas voter ID law as Lyndon Johnson picking a dog up by the ears. The last white-only primary was in 1944. The poll tax went away in 1966. The literacy test in 1970. Roll-purging and annual reregistration ended in 1976. So, has there been enough time for black voters to recover from having been discriminated against in 1976?  1970?  1966?  1944?

And how does Ramos stretch her axe-grinding from 1976 to 2014? Anecdotal evidence and redistricting. There seems to have been a recurring problem during the 1970s over Prairie View A&M students being denied the vote in local elections because they weren't residents of Waller County, home to just 43 thousand of Texas' 25 million citizens. Additional incidents occurred in 1990, 2003, and 2008, with the county caving to the inevitable charges of racism and a student getting elected to the commissioner's court. That's it, but Ramos says it's proof that nothing's changed in Texas since the late 19th century. Or at least since 1976 in Waller County.

Buried in the footnotes to this tale of woe is an interesting bit of uncontroverted history Ramos sort of paints over: Texas wasn't originally subject to preclearance under the VRA. When the VRA became law, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, along with 39 counties in North Carolina and 1 county in Arizona, had to seek preclearance to change voting laws because of their history of discrimination against blacks. Even New York and New Hampshire made the list ahead of Texas. And when Texas was finally added it wasn't for mistreating blacks. In 1975, Texas joined the ranks of the oppressed as the result of an amendment passed by overwhelming post-Nixon majorities in a Democratic Congress: the Democrats targeted Texas because 5% of its population spoke Spanish, but the state only provided election materials in English.

Which brings us to redistricting. Or protected Democratic seats in Congress, which is what this kerfuffle is really about. Ramos is skating on very thin ice here because from at least 1990 Texas redistricting has centered on issues that have little or nothing to do with suppression of the black vote. We know this because the 2003 redistricting was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (LULAC), and the court paid close attention to its history. After winning the 1990 popular vote by a narrow 51-47% margin, the left-trending Democratic Party realized it stood to lose a substantial number of seats in the House of Representatives. The solution: "the shrewdest gerrymander of the 1990s," a blatantly partisan, computer-generated abomination crafted by Democratic congressman Martin Frost.

The result was a flagrant disenfranchisement of Texas Republicans, the kind the Department of Justice and the courts yawn at because the disenfranchised are white. Within three years, the Republicans owned Texas, winning every statewide race from 1994 on. In 2000, they carried 59% of the statewide vote, but won only 13 out of 30 U. S. House seats. Following the 2000 census, the Democrat-controlled Texas House blocked the redistricting called for by federal law, so a "neutral" judge-drawn plan was put in place. It was a farce. In 2002 Republicans again carried 59% of the statewide vote, and won only 15 of 32 congressional seats. But they at last took control of the Texas House, giving them the power to push through the 2003 redistricting that killed the 1991 Democratic gerrymander. In 2004, they won 58% of the statewide popular vote. They also won 21 of 32 congressional seats. Those are the numbers in LULAC, and a similar picture emerges using the aggregate vote in U. S. House races.

Reading Ramos' opinion, you might think LULAC eviscerated the 2003 redistricting for discriminating against blacks. Only it didn't. The Supreme Court upheld the redistricting with the exception of one district that failed because an attempt to save Rep. Henry Bonilla's seat resulted in a district with two Hispanic communities that were too far apart to have a common political agenda. That's right -- there were enough, just not the right kind. What the VRA is about isn't just "one man one vote" but creating "opportunity" districts for minorities, i.e., guaranteed Democratic seats in the U. S. House of Representatives for stalwarts like Luis Gutiérrez, whose Chicago district is a veritable picture of opportunity. It should surprise no one that a major reason the 2001 plan failed to fix the 1991 gerrymander was that the judges' first priority was keeping intact the nine majority-minority congressional districts mandated by the VRA, eight held by Democrats and the ninth by Bonilla.

The impression LULAC leaves isn't that Texas is a hotbed of white-on-black terrorism or Mississippi of the 1960s, but that the VRA is a source of confusion and contention because it is impossible to implement fairly and rationally. And that was before Eric Holder. There's no doubt about what Shelby County had to say about wrongs committed in the distant past being punished in the present. Just as the Fifth Circuit had no doubt about Supreme Court precedent against disrupting elections with last-minute injunctions.

However, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos vehemently disagrees. What we got from her is a partisan hit job reeking of grievance industry rhetoric. And we got it just 9 days before the start of early voting in an election where the Democrats are desperate to drive turnout by playing the race card. To top that off, Ramos has the gall to chastise Texas for its racially-polarized voting. As if white Texans -- not the Democratic Party, the grievance industry, the media, and opinions like Ramos' -- are to blame for monolithic black voting.

In this election I guess that makes a crazy kind of sense. Accusing white Texans of resorting to racial terrorism and a "draconian" ID law to suppress the black vote is about on a par with the Wendy Davis empty wheelchair ad, or her innuendo that Greg Abbot, whose wife is Hispanic, is a bigot hot for banning interracial marriage.

Small wonder Ruth Bader Ginsburg approved.

Mr. Stewart is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.  He is writing a book on the establishment clause and welcomes feedback at edward.stewart27@yahoo.com.