A court case under way this week in Washington will determine whether new election districts drawn by the Texas Legislature conform to the Voting Rights Act.

The arguments for and against the districts, with the state and federal government taking opposite sides, follow oral arguments in the Supreme Court last week on related redistricting issues in the state.

There’s no way to tell how the complex legal challenges will be resolved. The only thing certain about the whole mess is that Texas, which is required to have its districts precleared by either the Justice Department or a special panel of judges in Washington, will go through something very similar in 10 years, when it will redistrict again. All of which underscores the need to take redistricting powers away from legislatures and governors and put them in the hands of citizen commissions.

Let’s start at the beginning. Population growth in Texas over the past decade has yielded an electoral bounty of four new congressional seats, bringing the state’s total to 36. Roughly two-thirds of that population growth is attributable to Hispanics. Growth among blacks accounts for much of the rest.

In 2008, 63 percent of Texas Hispanics and 98 percent of the state’s blacks voted for Barack Obama, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In trying to deny Democrats the electoral fruits of minority population growth, the Republicans who control the Texas Legislature diluted the power of minority voters. Under the Legislature’s new map, for example, the number of state House districts in which racial minorities are a majority of the population actually declined. The predictable result was more than a dozen lawsuits.

Gerrymandering is as old as the Republic and still commonplace. But not every gerrymander is a violation of the Voting Rights Act. In Illinois, which is losing a seat due to reapportionment, the Democrats who run the state General Assembly redrew district lines to squeeze as many Republicans out of the congressional delegation as possible. Yet the Illinois districts were upheld by a federal court and will probably stand.

To understand why requires a trip back in time. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to protect blacks in the South from poll taxes and other efforts by white Democrats to suppress the vote. (In addition to Texas, 15 mostly Southern states must preclear all or some of their electoral district maps with the U.S. Justice Department or the special judicial panel.)

Racial Polarization

About the same time the act was passed, the racial polarization of the parties began. The Democratic Party evolved as a multiracial coalition. The Republican Party, which once attracted significant black support, opted for a Southern strategy of racial code words, symbolism and white votes.

When Democrats in Illinois draw a partisan election map, the result isn’t pretty and it isn’t fair. But it’s far less likely to advance white power at the expense of minorities, because Democratic success depends on minority voters and candidates. When Republicans in Texas do the same thing, the outcome is almost certain to be different. Even if Texas Republicans act without racial animus, it’s almost impossible to draw election districts to favor a predominantly white political party in a racially diverse state without undermining the political ambitions of minorities.

The Illinois model is bad. The Texas model is worse. A better solution is to give redistricting powers to independent commissions, as six states now do, including recent converts California and Arizona. Politicians in both those states have squealed, but the new state commissions have produced less partisan maps, with generally more cohesive geographic lines and communities, more competitive districts and less deference to entrenched legislators.

If the citizen panels can withstand political assaults, they will establish the credibility and durability needed to minimize challenges in the future. That will help rationalize the redistricting process and reduce the kind of abuses on display in Illinois and Texas. It could also speed the South’s release from the strictures of the Voting Rights Act, because less partisan maps are also likely to be less racially provocative.

Meanwhile, Texas must hold an election, which means there must be district boundaries in place. Some primaries have already been postponed, and the legal wrangling is far from over. Texas is largely responsible for its predicament: Not only did state leaders draw particularly aggressive boundaries, they also dragged their feet in pushing the plan through, perhaps hoping the threat of election chaos would trump concerns over minority voting rights.

It would be nice if the Voting Rights Act, which Congress reauthorized in 2006, was a vestige of a distant era. It’s understandable that states targeted by the act’s preclearance requirement grate under its dominion. But Texas has just demonstrated why the law exists. Before the 2020 census, we hope that Texas will join other states in turning over redistricting power to a citizen commission. Then perhaps the courts will no longer feel compelled to mess with Texas.

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