By KELLEY SHANNON Associated Press
Feb. 18, 2009
AUSTIN — Latino voters who sued the Texas Democratic Party claiming its presidential delegate system discriminates against Hispanics are getting another chance to make their case.
A judge threw out the lawsuit last year, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled Tuesday that a three-judge panel — not one judge — should decide the merits of the case and sent it back to lower courts for reconsideration.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, the Mexican American Bar Association of Houston and other plaintiffs sued the state and the Democratic Party after the intense primary between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. The plaintiffs weren’t contesting to whom the delegates were awarded, but rather how the allotment was made.
They argue that the complicated delegate system unfairly dilutes Latino votes by awarding fewer presidential delegates to heavily Hispanic areas.
Though a federal Voting Rights Act claim is at the heart of the lawsuit, the Latino voter advocates also are taking aim at the entire Texas delegate system known as the Texas two-step, which included a March 2008 primary and caucus plus senate district caucuses a few weeks later. They say the system dilutes the votes of those who cast only a primary ballot but can’t make it to an evening caucus on primary day.
“From the very beginning our goal was to get rid of the Texas two-step,” Luis Vera, national general counsel for LULAC, said Wednesday.
Last year Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio dismissed the suit. He had said the spirit and intent of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities, was not violated. Biery said the act does not dictate to political parties how to determine their presidential nominees as long as everyone is allowed to participate.
Nearly all the delegates in the Texas system are apportioned based on Democratic voter turnout numbers in state senate districts in previous elections. So, low turnout in a Hispanic area for Democrat Chris Bell in the 2006 gubernatorial election resulted in fewer presidential delegates for that district in 2008.
LULAC contends that Latino districts by nature have fewer Democratic participants because the voting age population is younger.
“They reward white Republican districts and dilute the vote of the Latino districts,” Vera said. “The Democratic Party is supposed to be the party of inclusion.”
The Texas Democratic Party said it strongly supports the Voting Rights Act, and party officials said they are confident they will win again before Biery and two other judges to be named to hear the case in the coming months.
Party attorney Chad Dunn said the Democrats’ rules are decided by delegates to the state convention and that there is no discriminatory intent or effect.
“We think it’s a fundamental First Amendment issue,” he said. “The Texas Democratic Party runs a fair primary system. … You just turn out and vote and you’re awarded more delegates next time around.”
The Texas Democratic Party system has been in place for 20 years. It sends presidential delegates to the national party convention based on primary and caucus results. The caucus delegates are distributed through a series of meetings, starting on primary day and culminating with a state convention three months later.
The appeals court upheld the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claim against the state, saying that the delegate allocation procedure was enacted and operated by the party, not the state of Texas.
The TDP Chair’s Advisory Committee on the Convention/Caucus System will have its next meeting at the UNT-Dallas campus (7300 Houston School Rd. Dallas, Texas 75241) on Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009 from 12 noon to 2 p.m. in room 170.
The Committee has finished taking public testimony. Now, they are moving into the phase when they will begin deciding on recommended changes to the system.