AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Contested voting maps in Texas won't change for 2016, a federal court ruled Friday, setting aside claims of Hispanics getting short shrift at the ballot box and easing worries of a shakeup to the primary calendar in the Republican presidential race.
"It would be extremely difficult to implement new interim plans without tremendous interruption to the 2016 election schedule," wrote a three-judge panel in San Antonio in a signed order.
The order was not a final decision on the fairness of the maps. Also still pending are more serious claims that Texas Republicans intentionally discriminated against minorities during their first crack at drawing new Statehouse and congressional districts in 2011 under then-Gov. Rick Perry.
The Obama administration has a stake in that larger question after taking the unusual step of deploying the weight of the Justice Department, which wants the court to consider making Texas feel the full force of the Voting Rights Act if intentional discrimination is found.
For now, Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton welcomed the short-term victory.
"We are pleased the state's redistricting plans will remain in effect. Attorney General Paxton will continue to fight these politically motivated efforts to invalidate Texas' legally enacted maps," Paxton spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said.
The ruling also relaxes fears of Texas getting bumped from the "Super Tuesday" slate of March primaries. Losing this latest round in a lengthy redistricting battle could have forced Texas to wait on new maps and cost the nation's biggest conservative state an early say over the GOP nominee.
Republican candidates, including Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, are already investing in Texas — a former afterthought for White House hopefuls because the delegate-rich state until now was toward the end of primary season.
Voting rights battles in Texas have flared since Republicans in 2011 redrew maps to fortify conservative majorities and passed one of the nation's toughest voter ID laws.
"We've contended all along that the maps intentionally violate voter rights. Every day they're used harms Texas voters," said Chad Dunn, one of the lead attorneys fighting the maps.
The existing Texas maps were used in 2014 after being approved on an interim basis by this same court. But minority rights groups say they dilute the voting strength of a booming Hispanic population.
The Justice Department got a mixed victory in August when Texas' tough voter ID requirements were found to have discriminatory effects, although a federal appeals court ordered Texas to fix flaws instead of scrapping the law entirely.
North Carolina is the only other state where the Justice Department is also challenging election laws. It came after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, freeing nine mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination from needing approval to change voting laws. The requirement had been known as preclearance.
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