Monday, July 14, 2014

TXGOP's anti-Latino redistricting scheme exposed in e-mails

Miriam Rozen at Salon with the gumshoe detective work.

On Nov. 17, 2010, Eric Opiela sent an email to Gerard Interiano. A Texas Republican Party associate general counsel, Opiela served at that time as a campaign adviser to the state’s speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio; he was about to become the man who state lawmakers understood spoke “on behalf of the Republican Congressmen from Texas,” according to minority voting-rights plaintiffs, who have sued Texas for discriminating against them.

A few weeks before receiving Opiela’s email, Interiano had started as counsel to Straus’ office. He was preparing to assume top responsibility for redrawing the state’s political maps; he would become the “one person” on whom the state’s redistricting “credibility rests,” according to Texas’ brief in voting-rights litigation.

In the Nov. 17, 2010, email, Opelia asked Interiano to look for specific data about Hispanic populations and voting patterns.

“These metrics would be useful to identify the ‘nudge factor’ by which one can analyze which census blocks, when added to a particular district [they] help pull the district’s Total Hispanic pop … to majority status, but leave the Spanish surname RV [registered voters] and TO [turnout] the lowest,” Opiela writes to the mapmaker.

Interiano responded two days later: “I will gladly help with this Eric but you’re going to have to explain to me in layman’s terms.”

Opiela, you may recall, was also a GOP candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner who failed to clear his primary and make the runoff last spring.

Two years and seven months after that email exchange — and one year ago on June 25, 2013 — the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had allowed the federal government to “pre-clear” redistricting maps proposed by Texas and other states with a history of discriminating against minority voters.

In a follow-up email on Nov. 19, 2010, Opiela explained to Interiano that he called his proposed strategy: “OHRVS” or “Optimal Hispanic Republican Voting Strength.” Opiela defined the acronym-friendly term as, “a measure of how Hispanic, and[,] at the same time[,] Republican we can make a particular census block.”
Lawyers for the African-American and Hispanic voting-rights plaintiffs consider Opiela emails “a smoking gun.” The correspondence will play a starring role at a trial scheduled to start today in a San Antonio federal court in a redistricting case, Perez v. Perry. The litigation pits the plaintiffs, who have been joined by the Obama administration, against Texas and its Republican state leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry in his official capacity.

Did someone mention that the trial began today?

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in San Antonio, who represents Perez plaintiffs, believes Opiela’s emails show evidence of intentional discrimination and thereby provide the federal government with a spare key to restart Section 5, replacing the one the Shelby decision removed from the ignition.


Clare Dyer helped gather that data for Interiano. She serves as a mapping and redistricting researcher for the Texas Legislative Council, a state agency, which provides, according to its website, “nonpartisan research” for all state players in the redistricting process.

When MALDEF’s Perales asked Dyer at her May 15, 2014, deposition about the emails, the state researcher said that Opiela appeared to be asking for “metrics,” which Interiano later sought from her office. Her interpretation of Opiela’s meaning in his emails: “[H]e’s trying to shore up — well, he says that — shore up districts so he can get — have them appear to be high Hispanic, but low Spanish surname registered voters. … You could give the appearance of having a Hispanic majority district, but it wouldn’t have the capability to elect — for the Hispanics in the district -- to elect the person of their choice.”

Sure seems like a lot of trouble to go to in order to try to win an election, doesn't it?

In its list of witnesses filed on June 9, though, the federal government has included Interiano as one it intends to call and Opiela as another it might call. Interiano testified at an earlier redistricting case for Texas — one the state filed in a D.C. federal court before Shelby in July 2011.  In its complaint in that case, Texas sought a declaration that its redistricting plans complied with the Voting Rights Act.  A three-judge panel of the D.C. federal court denied Texas the declaration and found the state in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. After Shelby, the D.C. court had to vacate its ruling. And the court had never ruled on the question of Texas’ alleged intentional discrimination, since prior to Shelby, such a finding was unnecessary to find the state in violation of Section 5.

In its opinion, however, the D.C. court expressed doubts about Interiano’s testimony. “[T]he incredible testimony of the lead House map drawer reinforces evidence suggesting map drawers cracked VTDs [vote tabulating districts] along racial lines to dilute minority voting power. … This and other record evidence may support a finding of discriminatory purpose in enacting the State House Plan. Although we need not reach this issue, at minimum, the full record strongly suggests that the retrogressive effect we have found may not have been accidental,” the D.C. judges concluded.

We should see some restrengthening of the fifty-year-old Voting Rights Act... if there is justice, and not just for Republicans.  More on today's opening arguments from the Dallas News.

Related reading from last week on Greg Abbott's other courtroom losses:

-- Texas Largely Loses Motion to Dismiss Voter ID Claims

-- Texas voter ID law must stand trial, judge rules

Man, Abbott is a really shitty lawyer.

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