Texas broke voting rights law in Fort Worth area redistricting, state GOP senator says

·4 min read
Eric Gay/AP

In a sworn declaration submitted as part of an ongoing federal court challenge, a senior Republican state senator with redistricting experience said he believes his party violated federal voting laws when it drew new boundaries for state Senate District 10 in the Fort Worth area.

“Having participated in the 2011 and 2013 Senate Select Redistricting Committee proceedings, and having read the prior federal court decision regarding SD10, it was obvious to me that the renewed effort to dismantle SD 10 violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution,” state Sen. Kel Seliger said in a declaration signed in November.

The statement from the Amarillo Republican emerged this week as part of a dayslong hearing before a three-judge panel considering a lawsuit that claims the district was intentionally reconfigured to discriminate against voters of color in Tarrant County.

Under the map passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, some Black and Hispanic populations previously in District 10 were split into two other districts with majority-white electorates. The Black and Hispanic voters who remain in the newly drawn District 10, in urban areas of south Fort Worth, were lumped in with several rural, mostly white counties to the south and west that drive up the district’s population of white eligible voters while diminishing the number of voters of color.

A group of plaintiffs — including state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, who represents the current SD-10 — is asking the federal judges to throw out the new district ahead of the March primaries.

Seliger chaired the Senate’s redistricting committee last decade, redrawing the state’s maps following the 2010 census when a similar attempt to reshape the district was found to be discriminatory. A federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled in 2012 that lawmakers had discriminated against voters of color in dismantling the district and cracking apart their communities. As a result, the Legislature went back to restore the district’s configuration.

Seliger affirmed his declaration in a video deposition taken earlier this month — portions of which were played in open court in El Paso this week — during which he also said that “pretextual reasons” were given for how political boundaries were decided during the 2021 redistricting process.

Seliger pointed to the redrawing of his own district in the Texas Panhandle as an example. The district was reconfigured so that it lost several counties from the region while picking up about a dozen on the southern end of the district, closer to Midland, from where Seliger had picked up a primary challenger. He ultimately decided against seeking reelection.

The chamber’s chief map-drawer, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said throughout the process that the maps were drawn “race-blind” while following various guidelines, such as preserving political subdivisions, communities of interest and geographic compactness.

Beyond the challenge to SD-10, the state is defending the Legislature’s redistricting work against a collection of legal challenges to its new maps for the state House and Senate and for Congress.

The Legislature passed maps last year that solidified the GOP’s dominance while weakening the influence of voters of color. None of the maps offer Hispanic Texans new opportunities to turn their growing numbers into political power, even though they were behind half of the state’s growth in the last decade.

The federal lawsuits are built on allegations that lawmakers discriminated — in some cases intentionally — against voters of color by diminishing the power of their votes. The challenge to SD-10 is running ahead of the various challenges to the House and Congressional maps, which are not set to go to trial until the fall.

On Wednesday, Seliger told The Texas Tribune that his statement about the illegality of SD-10 was “more of a concern than it was an assertion” of whether there was a violation.

“When you draw a map that essentially takes out minorities or, in what was more the point, take out the chance that there would ever be a Democrat elected there, was there a violation?” Seliger said. “It’s not an assertion on my part because I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but that was my concern about Sen. Powell’s district — to take that district and completely change it and it still marginalized minorities in that district.”

He added that there was a “context” surrounding the drawing of SD-10 — even as Huffman asserted she had not paid any attention to racial data in drawing its boundaries — that requires lawmakers to consider race.

“The Voting Rights Act says if you can create a district in which a historically marginalized minority can elect a candidate of their choice, you must draw that district,” Seliger said. “You start with that principle in every single district.”

As part of his deposition, Seliger indicated that he had not authored the declaration in question, which he signed under penalty of perjury. Instead, it had been provided to him by Powell. Still, he said he stood by the statements that were included.

“Is everything exactly the way I would have written it? I can’t tell you that. I doubt it, but it was perfectly acceptable,” Seliger said.

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