AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Minorities will make up the majority of voters in three additional Texas congressional districts under a proposed redistricting map released by a federal court Wednesday, which is expected to give Democrats an advantage in the 2012 elections as they seek to win back the House.
Minorities currently are the majority in 10 out of 32 Texas districts and the new map will raise that to 13 out of 36, if the court gives the map final approval as expected.
The San Antonio-based federal court drew the maps after minority groups sued the state claiming a redistricting map drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature does not reflect the growth in the state's Hispanic and black population. In a separate case in Washington, a federal court refused to approve the lawmaker-drawn map without a trial, agreeing with the Department of Justice that there was sufficient evidence to question whether it hurt minority representation.
Also on Wednesday, the San Antonio federal court issued final maps for state Senate and House districts that are very similar to ones proposed last week that could also lead to greater minority representation. The court dramatically redrew those maps from what the Legislature passed, giving Democrats a chance to add as many as a dozen seats in the Legislature.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and other Republican leaders have denied that any of Legislature's redistricting maps would diminish minority voting power and denounced the map issued on Wednesday.
"The court issued a map without any explanation, but still, it seems apparent that the proposed map misapplies federal law and continues the court's trend of inappropriately venturing into political policymaking rather than simply applying the law," Abbott said in a statement Wednesday on the congressional maps. "Perhaps worst, in the name of protecting Hispanic voting power, the court seems to be discarding already elected Republican Hispanics in favor of drawing maps that may elect Democratic Hispanics. That is not and should not be the proper role of the court or the proper application of the Voting Rights Act."
Abbott has said that if the court's maps do not change to more closely reflect what the Legislature approved, he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and most likely delay the March 6 primaries.
Republican lawmakers insist the maps drawn by the Legislature merely reflect the Republican majority in Texas. Experts say three of the new seats would have gone to Republicans under the legislative map. When drawing the interim map, the court gave priority to ensuring minority voting strength was protected in the 2012 election. The court-ordered map will remain in place until the legal fights are resolved.
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.
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.
"It is certainly a map we are very, very proud of. We are talking about four (new) congressional districts and we've long maintained the lion's share of those should belong to Latinos and minorities who grew this state," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the leader of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, which participated in the San Antonio lawsuit.
The court redrew congressional districts 23 and 27 in West Texas and along the southern coast to make them more heavily Hispanic and created a new district 35 in Central Texas that also is majority Hispanic. The court also drew a new district 33 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where whites are a minority.
The changes to districts 23 and 27 put incumbent Republican U.S. Reps. Blake Farenthold and Francisco "Quico" Canseco at risk of losing their seats.
"Court releases TX Congressional map wiping out several Republican seats," Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick said on Twitter shortly after the maps were released.
In creating district 35, the court made a major departure from the Republican-drawn map by dividing Travis County, which includes Austin, into three congressional districts rather than five. The Legislature's draft map pitted Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett against a Democratic challenger from San Antonio, state Rep. Julian Castro. They'll run in separate districts under the court-drawn map.
"I'm pleased that the court drew a map that better represents the state of Texas. I'm confident that these are the maps that we will run under in 2012," Castro told The Associated Press. "Any time you can do without having a primary opponent, that's always a good thing."
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.
Texas Democrats were pleased with the proposed map.
"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 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.