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Federal Court Proposes Congressional Voting Districts

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AUSTIN (AP) – A San Antonio-based federal court on Wednesday issued a proposed interim map for Texas congressional districts ahead of the 2012 election, which some believe will give Democrats a greater chance of winning additional seats.

The court-drawn maps will remain in place until there is a resolution to two parallel legal fights over redistricting maps drawn by the Legislature. Minority groups have sued the state claiming the political maps drawn by GOP lawmakers do not reflect the growth in the state’s Hispanic and black population. In a separate case in Washington, a federal court refused to approve maps without a trial, agreeing with the Department of Justice that there was sufficient evidence to question whether it hurt minority representation.

Texas, among other states with a history of racial discrimination, can’t implement the maps or other changes to voting practices without federal approval under the Voting Rights Act. No federal approval and looming deadlines for county election officials made it necessary for the San Antonio court to issue their own plans that could be implemented immediately.

In the most obvious advantage for Democrats, the court’s map divides Travis County, which includes Austin, into three congressional districts rather than five. The Legislature’s map pitted incumbent U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat, against a Democratic challenger from San Antonio. The court drawn map gives Austin and San Antonio separate districts that do not overlap, both of which appear to give Democrats an advantage.

The court also made significant changes to districts in the Corpus Christi area and rural West Texas, putting Republican U.S. Reps. Blake Farenthold and Francisco “Quico” Canseco at risk of losing their seats.

Democrats were pleased with the proposed maps.

“We are pleased that Texas is on the road to fair elections in which the voters, rather than Republican mapmakers, will get to determine the outcome,” said Boyd Ritchie, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

“The maps enacted by the Legislature were an egregious example of Republican overreach and a complete disrespect of the changing Texas demographics.”

The court will now accept comments on its proposed maps until noon Friday before issuing a final version of the maps before Monday, when candidates will begin registering to be placed on the ballot.

The congressional map is one of three maps being challenged, along with maps for the Texas House and Texas Senate. Interim proposals for those legislative districts were released by the San Antonio court last week. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has said he is considering appealing the court-drawn maps to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the judges involved overstepped their bounds in enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

Lawmakers redraw districts every 10 years to reflect changes in census data. Texas is adding four additional congressional seats in 2012, a reflection of the state’s rapid population growth. Experts say three of those new seats would have gone to Republicans under the legislative map. Republican leaders said those districts were drawn to benefit their party, not hurt minority voters.

When drawing the interim map, the court gave priority to ensuring that minority voting strength was protected in the 2012 election. Minority voters make up the majority in 13 of the districts in the court-drawn map, while minority voters make up the majority in only 10 of the current districts.

That gives Democrats a greater chance of winning three of the new congressional seats. It also helps Democrats’ national efforts to gain 25 seats and win back the House.

More than 87 percent of the population growth in Texas since 2000 has been among minorities. In 2010, whites in Texas dropped to less than 50 percent of the population, but they still make up the vast majority of election officials.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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