AUSTIN (AP) — Austin residents called on Texas lawmakers Thursday to redraw congressional districts so that at least one representative can be elected from Travis County.
Political maps drawn by the Republican-dominated Legislature in 2011 divided the state Capitol into five congressional districts, none of them based in Austin. All but one of them was drawn so that a Republican could easily win, a move widely considered an attempt to get rid of Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett, a vocal critic of Gov. Rick Perry.
Federal judges in Washington found that those maps were drawn to intentionally discriminate against minorities and a federal court in San Antonio drew temporary districts for the 2012 election intended to fix only the most egregious problems with them. The interim congressional map kept Travis County divided and now the Legislature is meeting in special session to make the court-drawn maps permanent.
Sakar Chapman Thomas, an African-American resident of Austin, said the interim congressional map keeps her community from electing someone who represents Travis County's interests.
"By carving it into five pieces, it looks as though it is a concerted effort to silence the voices of minority voters in the district, and in this county, that normally vote Democrat," she told the Senate Redistricting Committee.
Thomas and other witnesses Thursday asked lawmakers to draw a new map where at least one congressional district has most of its residents living in Austin. Minority groups from across the state say the temporary maps didn't fix all the problems with the original maps and that new ones are needed.
The redrawing of the state's political districts takes place every 10 years after the U.S. Census is taken. State lawmakers redraw the maps in Texas, and the majority may legally design them to benefit their party. But federal law prohibits redistricting plans that hurt the ability of minorities to elect their candidates.
Two federal courts, one in Washington and the other in San Antonio, have found problems with how the Republican-majority drew the maps in 2011, and the San Antonio court may soon draw completely new maps. The special session is intended to short-circuit that process by adopting the temporary maps and forcing minorities to renew lawsuits that they previously filed.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, complained that the process of considering the court-drawn maps and public testimony was insincere.
"Texas state leaders are the only state leaders in the country to have enacted discriminatory redistricting (maps) against minority citizens," West said, referring to the Washington court's opinion. "The ruling of intentional discrimination cannot be washed away by holding cynical hearings where the public and minority leaders are asked to speak with certainty that their words will not be heard or acted upon."
West specifically complained about the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the House Redistricting Committee was expected to hold hearings Thursday afternoon. He said U.S. Census data shows that 2.2 million Hispanics and African-Americans live in Dallas and Tarrant counties, and therefore there should be three congressional districts where minorities make up the majority of voters.
Under the interim map, there are two such districts that elected black representatives from the Metroplex, and West said a new map should include a new majority-Latino district. Hispanic groups also want a new, majority-Latino district in Houston.
Lawmakers will hold hearings in Houston, Corpus Christi and San Antonio over the next week. The special session ends June 26 and if they do not adopt new maps, federal judges will almost certainly draw new congressional and state House maps for the 2014 election. All sides appear to have accepted the interim state Senate map.
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