A federal court in Austin will soon hear a lawsuit charging Texas with discriminating against minority voters in last year's redistricting process.
Virtually every round of redistricting since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act has brought some legal action against Texas. But typically, such cases have focused on the rights of Black and Latino Texans. This time, Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, voters are taking a leading role.
Amatullah Contractor lives in northwest Harris County. Until recently, her home was in Congressional District 7. But last year, the Texas Legislature redrew the maps, pushing her out of the Democratic-leaning 7th District and into a solidly Republican one.
"Congressional District 8 basically pairs these neighborhoods that are in the suburbs, that are very diverse, with a lot of like rural parts of Montgomery County and going into The Woodlands, where there is like a massive disconnect between the people that are in the district and who the district's representative would be," Contractor said.
District 8 is currently the seat of retiring Congressman Kevin Brady, who typically won lopsided victories against Democratic and Libertarian challengers. Most political analysts view GOP nominee Morgan Luttrell as a shoo-in to succeed Brady this November.
"One of my main concerns with these maps is that they were drawn with almost predetermined outcomes," Contractor said. "So going into the 2022 election, I already know who my representative is going to be immediately after the primary, just because of the way that it was drawn."
Contractor joined a lawsuit against Governor Greg Abbott and Secretary of State John Scott. The suit says, according to US Census data, people of color accounted for nearly all of Texas' population growth over the past decade and its AAPI population rose by 65%.
Deborah Chen is both an individual plaintiff in the lawsuit and the civic engagement programs director for another plaintiff, the AAPI advocacy group OCA-Greater Houston. "You would think logically that, okay, if the people of color communities were the largest portion of the population growth, then the districts at all different levels would reflect that," Chen said. "And that’s not the case."
In fact, the end result of redistricting was an increase in majority white districts, while AAPI communities are more divided among districts and less able to elect candidates of their choice.
A coalition of civil rights organizations makes up the plaintiffs' legal team, among them the ACLU Foundation of Texas, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). The team also includes attorneys from New York University's Brennan Center for Justice and the law firm of Paul, Weiss.
Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program at AALDEF, said the reason the lawsuit is necessary at all is because the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder struck down part of the Voting Rights Act.
"I’m pretty sure, as most of my colleagues would also agree, that if we still had federal preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, these lines would not have satisfied preclearance," Vattamala said.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required states that historically practiced racial discrimination in voting to get federal preclearance before making changes to their electoral maps. What remains in place is Section 2, which bans racial discrimination in redistricting.
Representing Texas is the Office of Attorney General Ken Paxton. The Attorney General's Office declined to comment for this story.
"For the first time, Asian Americans, in certain places, had the ability to elect candidates of their choice," Vattamala said. "What the Texas Legislature did was divide these areas where there was concentrated Asian population, take small portions of those Asian American communities, and link them, group them with white, rural, conservative population hundreds of miles away. It is the most brazen, clear case of vote dilution."
Such dilution was striking in Fort Bend County, home to one of the state's largest blocks of AAPI voters. Its Congressional District 22 came close to electing an Asian American, Democratic candidate, Sri Preston Kulkarni, in the past two elections. Then last year's redistricting split their vote among three districts and added to District 22 the much whiter Wharton and Matagorda counties.
“Congressional District 22 was really the only chance we would have had to send an Asian American to Congress,” said Nabila Mansoor, executive director of the progressive organization Rise AAPI. “That has now been taken away.”
Niloufar Hafizi, a Fort Bend County resident and another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said, "Now the incumbent, who is Representative Troy Nehls, essentially is locked into his district. And as a voter, it just feels very disempowering."
Not everyone sees it that way. State Representative Jacey Jetton, a Fort Bend County Republican, is a member of both the House Redistricting Committee and the Asian American House Caucus. Jetton called the redistricting process fair, legal, and transparent.
"I think that when you look at the fact that over 1,000 people move to Texas every single day," Jetton said, "we do not have a splitting of African Americans moving to one part of the state, Asians moving to one part of the state, Hispanics moving to one part of the state, and whites moving to another part of the state. We are a very diverse state where we’re very spread out. And so, this idea that there was this increase could all be encapsulated into a handful of districts is just not mathematically geographically possible."
The lawsuit, however, identifies eight counties in the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Austin metro areas in which the AAPI populations have skyrocketed over the past decade. These include Williamson County (169%), Collin County (116%), Denton County (115%), Fort Bend County (84%), Travis County (71%), Dallas County (54%), Tarrant County (53%), and Harris County (38%).
Voter advocacy groups said that Jetton’s argument misses the point. "We were very wide eyed and aware that there is currently no geographic area of Texas where we could have advocated for an Asian American or AAPI majority district," said Lily Trieu, interim executive director of Asian Texans for Justice. "We were simply asking for fair maps and to not split our communities. And unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Our communities continue to be split anyway."
Further, said Nabila Mansoor, it ignores the fact that AAPI groups have begun working together with other minority groups in order to achieve common ends. That was part of Rise AAPI’s strategy during last year’s redistricting process.
“What we did was we worked on something called unity maps,” Mansoor said. “So, we had the Black community, we had the Latinx community, we had the Asian American community come together and draw that map together, so that it wasn’t different maps being presented to our legislators. It was one map that we could say, ‘We as communities of color are presenting this to you because we believe this is the fairest way to draw those lines.'”
There's an additional complication to efforts to form such coalitions: diversity within the AAPI community itself. In Fort Bend County alone, the AAPI community comprises more than 50 different ethnicities speaking more than 100 different languages.
"There are some important differences across groups, which do come out sometimes in terms of politics as well," said Tanika Raychaudhuri, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston. “Some groups are more left-leaning, some groups are more right-leaning, and it really depends on their specific issues that matter to them, the places that they settle, and the needs that they have."
The last redistricting makes forming both interracial and interethnic coalitions that much harder, which may be one reason Latino and Black Texans are also suing to challenge the new maps. A federal judge has combined the lawsuits into one. The lawsuit was originally scheduled to go to trial before a three-judge panel at the end of September, but the panel has just announced it would delay the start of the trial. Any judgment will come far too late to have any impact on the congressional and state legislative elections this fall.
"Let’s be clear," AALDEF's Jerry Vattamala said, "There’s not going to be any relief in advance of the midterm elections. So, you know, in the event that these lines are ruled unconstitutional or otherwise illegal, if it is going to happen at all, it will be after the midterm elections. And that’s a real shame, because Texas and several other states have no problem at all proceeding with illegal or unconstitutional lines."
This story was updated at 4:24 to add that the federal court has delayed the trial.