Texas is a big state, and it once used big electoral districts, with multiple elected members, as a big way to suppress the Latino vote.
After the Civil War, Texas used a big bag of voter suppression laws, such as poll taxes and strict voter registration requirements, to suppress Latino voters and shut Mexican Americans out of the Texas House of Representatives. Between 1880 and 1970, one Mexican American was elected in 1890 and four others were elected between 1961 and 1970.
In 1971, MALDEF and other groups decided to try to drive the nail into the coffin of one of Texas’s more obscure – but powerful – voter suppression tools: voter districts that diluted the Mexican American vote in supersized white-majority districts with several elected representatives.
MALDEF, representing Joe J. Bernal and other Mexican Americans living in Bexar County, sued the State of Texas and won. The suit, filed in federal court, challenged the creation of a mega-sized district centered in San Antonio that was larger than 11 states, and was one of the largest voting districts in the nation’s history.
In a case called White v. Regester, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas’s urban voting district in Bexar County, which covered more than 1,000 square miles and included nearly one million people, was unconstitutional because it diluted the Mexican American vote, which was concentrated in the Westside of San Antonio, and reduced Latino representation in the Texas House of Representatives.
It was an important victory for minority voting rights because it was the first time the Supreme Court held that multi-member, at-large voting districts – which date back to the founding of the nation – could violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
It also was an important legal victory for Latinos because they were not covered by the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, and as a result could only bring a constitutional challenge against Texas. It would take another several years for Congress to expand the VRA to include “language minorities.”
In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that “cultural incompatibility … conjoined with the poll tax and the most restrictive voter registration procedures in the nation have operated to deny Mexican-Americans access to the political processes in Texas even longer than the Blacks were formally denied access by the white primary.”
At the time of MALDEF’s lawsuit, voting rights advocates were celebrating the toppling of other voter suppression tools – literacy tests and poll taxes – that were outlawed by Congress or ruled unconstitutional by the courts in the 1960s and early 1970s. Congress outlawed multi-member, at-large voting districts for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1967, but states were still allowed to use them for state office.
In 1970, the U.S. Census showed that the Mexican American population had increased in Bexar County. But instead of drawing up a single-representative Mexican American-majority district that would have increased the clout of Mexican American voters, Texas left the task to a state elections board staff member, Robert Spellings, who spent only one night drawing up all the Texas voting districts, including the one in huge Bexar County. MALDEF argued that the large district in Bexar County violated the “one man, one vote” rule and violated Mexican American voters’ Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection because Texas created other smaller districts with only one representative. Other groups sued over a similar voting district in Dallas County that diluted the African American vote.
The cases were consolidated and moved to the U.S. Supreme Court.
MALDEF attorney Eduardo “Ed” Idar, Jr. told the Supreme Court in oral arguments on February 26, 1973, “our minority in Bexar County has been totally submerged.”
Mexican Americans had been “frozen into permanent political minorities destined for constant defeat at the hands of the controlling political majority,” argued Idar, a native of Laredo, Texas.
Attorney Leon Jaworski, who would be appointed just months later as the Watergate special counsel and would topple President Richard M. Nixon, argued on behalf of Texas. He told the Court that there was no evidence of intentional discrimination against Mexican American voters.
That was technically correct. But Idar argued that the history of discrimination against Mexican Americans and the size of the Bexar County voting district would disenfranchise its Mexican American population. He told the Court that the dominant Anglo American electorate in Texas votes “on a ratio of 6:1 to 9:1 against Mexican American candidates.” He also noted that Mexican American candidates could not afford the huge campaign budget necessary to reach voters spread across one thousand square miles.
Even without evidence of intentional racial discrimination by the state of Texas, the Supreme Court ruled in White v. Regester that the huge Bexar County voting district violated the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights of Mexican American voters. The court ordered Texas to draw smaller, single-representative district boundaries to provide minority voters an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
The Supreme Court cited the district court’s decision in its ruling, noting that “Mexican-Americans in Texas had long suffered from and continue to suffer from, the results and effects of invidious discrimination and treatment in the fields of education, employment, economics, health, politics and others.”
After MALDEF’s victory in White v. Regester, other civil rights groups won court decisions declaring other states’ multi-member, at-large voting districts unconstitutional. As a result, most states have abandoned them in favor of smaller districts with only one legislative representative.
The battle to force Texas to get rid of mega-districts with multiple representatives was not easy. After the White v. Regester decision, Texas fought to keep other illegal mega-districts, dragging out the litigation for eight years.
One federal district court in Austin described the proceedings as a win for democracy: “Our second Sisyphean effort to break through the political thicket of Texas legislative redistricting ended with the hope that we had come to a clearing, in order to observe the rays of a true democratic society,” the court wrote. “Our hopes have been largely realized.”
And MALDEF’s then-general counsel, Mario Obledo, declared that at last Mexican Americans “will elect people from the barrio to speak for (them) in the councils of government.”
White v. Regester’s legacy would be felt for decades, including serving as a reference point for the expansion of the federal Voting Rights Act Amendment of 1982.
Today, 41 of the 150 members of the Texas House are Latino or represent Latino-majority districts.
This growth of Latino voter strength in Texas and across the United States began in large part with the MALDEF victory in White v. Regester.
White V. Regester Timeline
- October 1971
- November 1971
- November 1971
- November 1971
- December 21, 1971
- January 3, 1972
- January 28, 1972
- February 7, 1972
- February 11, 1972
- June 25, 1972
- February 26, 1973
- June 18, 1973
Following the decennial Census, Texas undertakes a redistricting plan to reapportion the House of Representatives and Senate. However, lawmakers fail to come up with a plan so a legislative redistricting board is convened.
Curtis Graves, a black State Representative from Harris County, files a lawsuit in the Houston Division of the Southern District of Texas challenging the constitutionality of the senatorial districts in that county.
Diana Regester and other voters in Tyler, Texas file a federal lawsuit challenging the legislative redistricting plan for the Texas House of Representatives on the grounds that multi-member districts are unconstitutional and result in “invidious discrimination against certain racial and political elements.” Within days, MALDEF attorneys Ed Idar and George Korbel file to intervene in the case on behalf of Joe J. Bernal and other Mexican American voters living in Bexar County.
A third lawsuit is filed by a group of Dallas plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the House redistricting plan.
The chairman of the Republican Executive Committee of Bexar County and other Republicans in the county file a lawsuit challenging the senatorial districts in Bexar County as racially gerrymandered.
Following an informal pre-trial conference before the Hon. Joe E. Estes, Chief Judge of the Northern District of Texas, all four cases are consolidated and assigned to a three-judge panel composed of Judge Wayne Justice, Judge John H. Wood, Jr., and Judge Irving L. Goldberg. The case is then transferred to the Austin Division of the Western District of Texas.
A four-day trial begins in Graves v. Barnes.
The three-judge panel rules the House redistricting plans for Dallas and Bexar Counties maps are unconstitutional because the plans violate the Equal Protection Clause, and “dilute the votes of racial minorities.” The court adopts the proposed single-member district plans for Bexar and Dallas submitted by plaintiffs, and orders that the 1972 elections be conducted under those new plans. The court upholds the senate plans.
U.S. Supreme Court denies a request by Texas to stay the three-judge court ruling in Graves v. Barnes. Justice Lewis F. Powell writes that the state failed to show the decision was “erroneous and that implementation of the judgment pending appeal will lead to irreparable harm.”
Graves files a notice of appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Texas files a notice of appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the three-judge panel’s holding that the Dallas and Bexar County multimember districts are unconstitutional. The Court notes that districts dilute the Mexican American vote, which was concentrated in the Westside of San Antonio, and orders those districts to be redrawn into single-member districts.