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Keeping a wary eye on the mapmakers

From msnbc.com's Tom Curry:
In one way President Barack Obama’s trip to Texas Tuesday is about immigration policy; in another way it relates to the most purely political process of all: the drawing of new district lines after the 2010 Census.

James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said Obama can send a morale-building message to Texas Democrats Tuesday: that he’s going to help defend them against any Republican redistricting plan that would jeopardize Democratic House members.  Republicans entirely control the redistricting process in Texas.

Due to its rapid population growth, the state is gaining four seats in the House of Representatives.

Henson said Texas Democrats “want the Justice Department to be paying close attention to the maps” as Gov. Rick Perry and the GOP-controlled legislature mull over where the new districts should be created and how the lines could be drawn to hobble Democrats’ chances in 2012 House races.

Right now – before it gets its four new seats -- the Texas delegation has 23 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Four of those Democrats are Latinos and three are African-American. One of the Republicans is a Latino.

Under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Texas is one of nine states that must get Justice Department approval for its new districts.

The law puts the burden of proof on the state to show the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges that its new redistricting plan will not lead to “retrogression” or a diminishing of the power of black and Latino voters.

Michael Pitts, a voting rights expert who teaches at Indiana University School of Law and who served as an attorney in the Voting Section of the Department of Justice, said the Voting Rights Act “protects the ability of minority voters to elect their candidates of choice. And with voting demographics being what they are, the choice of minority voters, African America and Latinos in Texas, is typically Democratic candidates.”

Since the Voting Rights Act became law, every decennial redistricting has occurred under the eye of a Justice Department in a Republican administration. This year, for the first time, a Democratic administration will oversee redistricting under the Voting Rights Act.

“Ever since Barack Obama was elected, it has been an article of faith here that the Justice Department is going to be the backstop for Texas Democrats -- the backstop that they didn’t have in the last redistricting cycle -- to minimize the advantage that Republicans could get out of redistricting,” Henson said.

A Democratic administration could make a difference, said Pitts, “almost in a counterintuitive way.” The conventional thinking is that white Democratic incumbents are the biggest losers under Section 5 and its application to most Southern and Southwestern states. “They’re the ones who are relatively unprotected,” Pitts said.

Black or Latino Democratic incumbents who represent districts with a predominantly black or Latino will likely have their seats preserved. If redistricting eliminated or weakened their districts, the state would get hit with a retrogression claim under Section 5.

But, said Pitts, “what you could see out of the DOJ in a Democratic administration – if it were thinking in terms of what might be best in creating a Democratic majority in Congress – would be a loosening of the requirement that minority voters be allowed to elect their candidates of choice” and instead of concentrating minority voters into relatively few districts, “the spreading out of those minority voters to more districts” to help Democratic candidates in swing districts.