The Supreme Court's decision to strike a key part of the Voting Rights Act threatens to damage Democrats’ chances at the polls — and potentially cost them House seats, beginning in Texas.
Barring congressional action, that means a number of states — most of them Southern and GOP-controlled — no longer have to meet higher criteria to pass voting laws.
The ruling holds big implications for congressional redistricting and voter identification laws that Democrats claim are aimed suppressing minority turnout.
"This makes it much easier for Republicans to draw districts in away that minimizes the opportunities for Democrats in the South, minimizes opportunities for minorities in the South," said former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Martin Frost (D-Texas).
"They pretty much will have free rein to pack as many blacks into as few districts as possible. It's a blow for expanded minority representation in the South as well as for Democrats, and it clearly is a problem looking at voter ID laws."
Republicans dispute claims that they’ll use the change in law to their political advantage.
“No, it does not,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said when asked if the ruling gave the GOP opportunities to pack fast-growing minority populations into fewer districts in the South.
A key part of the law still stands, and groups can still fight laws they see as discriminatory in court.
Most redistricting maps are also settled for the rest of the decade, giving Congress plenty of time to act to remedy the court’s ruling.
The onus will now fall to outside groups, including poorly funded civil rights organizations, to prove there’s discrimination, rather than on state and local governments to prove there’s not — a much higher bar to clear.
That could hurt Democratic candidates who rely heavily on minority turnout to win elections, especially in the mostly Southern states the law covered.
But Westmoreland, who was the National Republican Congressional Committee’s point man on redistricting in 2012, argues that even after the ruling “anyone can sue over discriminatory maps.”
Westmoreland also promised to push for Congress to come up with an updated formula to figure out which areas need extra scrutiny that would pass muster with the court.
“We're certainly going to present it to leadership and if they like it, put it on the fast track and get it out of here,” he said of his plan to make the coverage contingent on the last three presidential elections rather than on the results of the 1964 presidential elections, which had been the previous metric.
“I don't know why anyone wouldn't agree to updating the formula, making it current.”
But many — including Frost — are skeptical Congress will provide a remedy.
“It's highly unlikely that Congress will act given their current status of being unable to get anything done,” said Frost.
Adding to Democrats’ agitation: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's (R) statement that the Supreme Court ruling means the state can immediately implement its own controversial voter ID law — and potentially switch to a redistricting map that would give them a strong shot at picking up two more House seats in the state.
"With today’s decision, the State’s voter ID law will take effect immediately," Abbott said in a statement. "Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”
The decision on whether or not to push for the state’s original redistrict maps ultimately lies with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) — who called the decision “a clear victory for federalism and the states.”
Perry can either accept the current maps approved by the legislature, or veto them and push for the original 2011 maps.
“Texas may now implement the will of the people without being subject to outdated and unnecessary oversight and the overreach of federal power,” Perry said in a statement.
Democrats are sounding the alarm.
“There's no question this strengthened the hands of Republicans who see their path to holding onto power is undermining the black and Hispanic vote,” Texas Democratic redistricting expert Matt Angle said.
If Perry decides to go push the original maps, it would eliminate Rep. Marc Veasey’s (D-Texas) heavily African-American district and make Rep. Pete Gallego’s (D-Texas) district less heavily Latino.
Angle promised a “ferocious fight” if Perry chooses that route.
Gerry Hebert, a Democratic civil rights attorney who’s helping to fight Texas’s plan, said Republicans “were waiting for [the decision] to come down, knowing if it did they'd be able to make the changes to make it harder for minorities to vote.”
The Supreme Court’s decision “gives them license to do that,” he said.