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Texas taxpayers shell out millions to defend redistricting maps

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Kelly Nguyen knocks on doors in Houston's Chinatown, encouraging Asian Americans to vote. Nancy Marshall Genzer

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As voting gets underway for this year’s midterms, some Texans are casting ballots in new voting districts as a result of redistricting following the 2020 census. The Texas legislature, now controlled by Republicans, approved new redistricting maps. Civil rights groups say the maps violate federal law by diluting the voting power of minorities, who tend to back Democrats. The state is now spending millions to defend itself in lawsuits that challenge the new maps.

In a drab office building in Houston’s Chinatown, there’s a sign taped to a door that says “war room.” Inside is the headquarters for grassroots groups advocating for Asian American voters. Palwasha Sharwani is there. She heads a Muslim-American voter group called Emgage.

“Our votes have been diluted,” she said.

Sharwani says the new redistricting maps enlarge Republican-dominated districts, which then absorb large numbers of Asian American voters — like in Harris County, where we are now.

“The map, for example, for Harris County looks deranged,” Sharwani said.

Sharwani’s group filed one of nine lawsuits challenging the Texas redistricting maps.  But the litigation is on hold, so Texas is using the new maps for the midterms. Now the focus is getting out the vote in these new districts.

Kelly Nguyen and a couple of other volunteers head out to a suburban street, armed with packets of information on how to register to vote. Speaking in Vietnamese, Nguyen encourages an elderly couple to vote, then hands them a packet.

After the midterms, the advocacy groups and the Justice Department, will turn their attention back to the lawsuits. Michael Li will help them.  He’s an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, and says Texas is spending millions to defend its redistricting maps.

“The state has brought in outside consultants to do a lot of that work on the taxpayer’s dime,” he said.

The Texas governor’s office and attorney general’s office didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment on these lawsuits. In the past, though, the governor’s office has said the state is obligated to defend redistricting maps that were duly enacted by the state legislature. After Marketplace submitted numerous Public Information Act requests, the state did provide some numbers, and so far Texas has spent more than $2 million on these lawsuits.  Election law attorney C. Robert Heath says these cases are particularly expensive.

“The stakes are big so there’s probably more lawyering that goes into it than a slip and fall case,” he explained.

Heath helped defend redistricting maps created by Republicans in the early 2000s, when they were challenged in court. He says these pricey lawsuits can drag on for years. Heath has also worked for Democrats, and he says when they were in power, they did their share of partisan gerrymandering, and also had to defend their redistricting maps in court.

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