* Republicans seeking to hold onto 2010 gains in House
* Texas, North Carolina, Illinois focus of major disputes
By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON, Aug 18 As President Barack Obama
and Democrats fight to take control of the U.S. House of
Representatives in 2012, legal battles are erupting in states
where Republicans are tilting voting maps in their favor.
In states such as Texas and North Carolina, Republicans who
control legislatures are redrawing the boundaries of voting
districts to tighten their grip on seats in Congress and are
trying to minimize the chance that Democrats could steal them
Obama's Justice Department or federal courts will have to
approve some of the maps under a 1965 civil rights-era law.
Democrats and some minority groups already have filed lawsuits
arguing the redistricting maps unfairly marginalize them.
The stakes are huge with tax and spending policies atop the
agenda. When Democrats last controlled Congress and the White
House, healthcare and financial regulation reforms passed.
Democrats will require a major political shift to regain
control of the House, which they lost in a nationwide vote a
year ago. Come the November 2012 elections, they will need a
net gain of 26 in the House where all 435 seats are at stake.
"I do not see the Republicans as increasing their lead in
the House of Representatives because of the redistricting
cycle, but they should be able to shore up their vulnerable
incumbents," said Nathaniel Persily, director of the Center for
Law and Politics at Columbia Law School.
States are assigned House seats based on a national census,
last conducted in 2010. States that lean Democratic, like New
York, lost seats as the population shifted toward more
conservative regions, including Texas, Florida and Arizona.
The shifts are leading to fierce legal battles over the new
lines that states drew for the congressional seats with both
sides accusing each other drawing them based not just on race
but on politics, a process called gerrymandering.
Those lawsuits may be tougher to win according to David
Wasserman who monitors House races for The Cook Political
Report. "There is no clear bright line to identify what
constitutes partisan gerrymandering or not," he said.
CARVING UP TEXAS
Perhaps no state illustrates the controversy better than
Texas, which received four new congressional districts thanks
to a rapidly growing Hispanic population that would appear to
But, Republicans control the legislature and the governor's
mansion so they sliced up the map to improve their electoral
chances, creating only one new heavily Hispanic district.
"There's one more Latino district than there was in the
last cycle, but boy that doesn't reflect where all the growth
came from," said Justin Levitt, an associate professor at
Loyola School of Law in California.
Court documents filed in Texas have shown how Republicans
discussed dividing up voting precincts to try to build support
in their districts, and in one case trying to include apartment
buildings full of their supporters and a country club.
In creating the new majority Hispanic district, other areas
on Texas' map were carved up to add more Republican voters to
districts narrowly won by freshmen who rode the Republican wave
to capture the House in 2010 like Representatives Francisco
Canseco and Blake Farenthold, experts said.
Hispanic voters in the Dallas/Fort Worth area were split
among several Democratic districts rather than given their own
seat. Some have argued they should also have a district in the
Houston area. As a result, they have filed lawsuits.
To address longtime racial discrimination, once endemic in
the South, a 1965 civil rights law required some states,
including Texas, to get approval for any changes to its
district maps to ensure they did not harm minorities.
In a rare move, Texas officials filed a lawsuit in court in
Washington for approval of the new map rather than going to the
Justice Department, run by Obama appointees.
But the bigger battle will likely be back in Texas, where
Hispanic groups have filed lawsuits in federal courts there
challenging the map as discriminatory, Levitt said.
"The particular question here isn't going to be backsliding
but whether Texas has done what it needs to do in order to
address the current and growing minority population," he said.
Legal battles over redistricting often drag on for months,
if not years. If a new map cannot quickly pass judicial muster,
the courts could draw it, and that could hurt either side.
After the 2000 census, Texas went up against Washington
over its redistricting plan after winning six House seats. The
map was largely upheld by the Supreme Court.
Democrats are not the only ones challenging redistricting
maps, Republicans have filed lawsuits in Illinois.
OBAMA FEARS SUPREME COURT CHALLENGE
Obama's Justice Department has been seen as hesitant to
bring challenges against states because of fears the Supreme
Court would strike down the part of the Voting Rights Act that
requires some states to seek pre-approval for their plans.
"The Obama Justice Department if anything has behaved
rather timidly and that is because they know the Supreme Court
is chomping at the bit to strike down section five of the
Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional so they are picking their
battles wisely," Persily from Columbia Law School said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman, Xochitl Hinojosa, said
they will challenge redistricting maps where local authorities
cannot prove the changes will not impact "the right to vote on
account of race, color or language minority status."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)