By Chris Tomlinson
AUSTIN — Last-ditch negotiations to save the April 3 Texas primary appeared dead Tuesday, throwing the state’s messy redistricting battle back to a federal court that must now sort through a widely panned partial deal and pick a new primary date.
The court had set a Monday deadline for the state and a coalition of minority rights groups to reach a compromise, but several black and Hispanic groups splintered at the bargaining table.
There was no signal that talks had resumed Tuesday, meaning the judges will almost certainly delay the primary at least two weeks as they draw new political maps.
The minority groups maintain the maps proposed by the Texas attorney general still contain “portions that diluted the Hispanic voting power,” Luis Vera, an attorney for League of United Latin American Citizens, said Tuesday.
In dispute are political districts representing the state’s most urban and racially diverse areas, and the judges must decide to what degree it’s legal for Republicans to minimize the influence of Democratic voters, even if those voters are minorities.
There is nothing illegal about the party in power — in this case the GOP — drawing maps that give incumbents the edge in order to maintain their party’s advantage.
However, minorities argue that by dividing up Democratic voters into majority Republican districts, or by packing as many Democrats as possible into just a few districts, they have given whites a disproportionate and illegal advantage.
Last year nine groups of minorities filed suit in the federal district court in San Antonio challenging the Legislature’s maps.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked a federal court in Washington to clear the maps as required by federal law, but it declined.
The San Antonio court said the Legislature’s maps cannot be used in the 2012 election pending the trial in that court.
So now the court must produce temporary maps.
The biggest fight centers on how to add four new congressional districts in Texas, though the Legislature also produced new state House and Senate maps.
Minorities represent more than 87 percent of the population growth in Texas over the last 10 years, and those groups expect more districts where they will make up the majority and can elect a candidate of their choice.
By comparison, the white population in Texas has dropped to below 50 percent since 2000, yet whites still make up the vast majority of Texas lawmakers.
The Legislature’s maps created only one new congressional district where Hispanics are the majority, and redrew only two of the 150 state House districts to make them majority-Hispanic.
The nine groups who brought the lawsuit are all fighting over different parts of the map, but as a group are challenging the design of 28 out of 36 congressional districts.
The biggest fight surrounds Dallas and Fort Worth, where Republicans drew congressional districts that are largely rural, except for small portions that include urban neighborhoods where minorities live.
As an example, the minority groups complain that despite an 83.7 percent growth in Latinos and 34.1 percent increase in blacks in Dallas County, the Legislature did not create a single new congressional district where minorities could win in that area.
On Monday, Abbott offered up a compromise that would create a new Hispanic-majority district running through the center of the regions.
That was enough to win the support of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. But the other groups said changes elsewhere in Texas were still needed.
The other districts in dispute are in San Antonio, where Hispanic voters are divided into three districts, Central Texas where African American voters are divided into four districts and the Texas coast where they are divided into six.
In redrawing the congressional districts, all of the Republican incumbents found that the Legislature’s maps kept their homes and their district offices inside the newly drawn lines.
Not so for three African American Democrats. The NAACP released a statement alleging the Legislature discriminated against black lawmakers.
The judges in San Antonio tried to draft temporary maps once before, but the U.S. Supreme Court determined the judges had not deferred enough to the Legislature’s original redistricting plans.
The San Antonio court then encouraged Abbott and the minority groups to draft compromise maps, but only one of the minority groups signed off on Abbott’s proposed draft.
So now it appears the judges will do the job.