For the first time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern state legislators can once again redesign electoral districts without federal oversight.
This means multiple GOP-dominated legislatures can shape state and congressional voting maps without first seeking approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Without the oversight constraints, seven Southern states reportedly mapped racially discriminatory elections: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, according to the Brennan Center, a public policy institute at the University of New York School of Law. York.
Each of these states has designed maps that raise concerns about the fair representation of black communities in legislatures and Congress. The districts were designed according to a discriminatory mapping system known as gerrymandering.
To challenge the denial of fair representation, black voters in the South — and pro-democracy allies — are fighting back in court.
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was one of the landmark achievements of the civil rights movement. It codified into federal law the protection of black voters in the South and, by extension, minority voters in other areas. The law was anchored in the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified after the Civil War, which states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or restricted by the United States or by any state in reason of race. , color or prior condition of easement”.
The VRA addressed the wide range of machinations used to suppress black voting under Jim Crow: poll taxes, white primaries, literacy tests, economic intimidation, beatings and lynchings. For example, section 2 of the law prohibits states and localities from designing qualifications or prerequisites that diminish the voting rights of minority communities; Section 5 required states with a history of discrimination to obtain federal “prior authorization” before changing voter qualifications or precincts.
Under the preclearance provision, blacks were able to gain a foothold in local and county legislatures and were poised to gain statewide influence in the South. The law has been used to expand the political representation of marginalized groups through the creation of Minority Majority Districts, Minority Coalition Districts, White Crusader Districts, and Districts with a Reasonable Degree of Minority Influence.
In recent years, however, opponents of the VRA have found favor with the United States Supreme Court to prolong old ways of white domination.
In 2013, the court struck down Section 5 in a case known as Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder. The decision released states from the preclearance obligation.
Since then, the GOP South has engaged in wide-ranging attacks on black voter turnout. So far, however, legislatures have not had the opportunity to rethink representation maps.
“It’s hard to believe we’re doing this again, but nearly six decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, black voters still need to stand up for the constituencies that represent their interests. ”
That changed with the 2020 census, the data used to restate state and congressional districts every 10 years. Each district has roughly equal populations; If shaped appropriately, they can promote “one person, one vote” goals and enable the representation of common interests and commonplaces.
This is not the case in the aforementioned southern states. The Brennan Center has suggested that rigged cards in Texas, North Carolina and Georgia alone could potentially prevent black voters from swaying up to nine congressional seats over preclearance requirements.
This is because preclearance would have prevented the dilution of black representation through mechanisms such as “packing,” where minorities are concentrated in a few places with limited legislative presence; and “crack,” where they are scattered across many districts with little influence, according to “Power on the Line(s): Making Redistricting Work for Us,” a May 2021 report researched by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. and other civil rights organizations.
It can take years and considerable effort in the courts and on the streets for communities to rid themselves of the discriminatory effects of rigged electoral districts.
Take North Carolina, where the GOP responded to the 2010 census by designing a map for the state legislature that grouped black communities into fewer districts than warranted by population growth, according to a lawsuit filed by voters. blacks in the state and described in the NAACP LDF report.
The United States Supreme Court in 2017 ruled that the North Carolina map was unconstitutional, but the victory came at an unacceptable cost. At the time of the SCOTUS judgment, the card had already been in place for years. During that time, the state’s GOP reduced early voting, ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, eliminated same-day registration, and instituted a strict voter ID requirement. .
In the wake of the 2020 census — in which North Carolina’s population increase of nearly a million people earned the state a bigger congressional split — the GOP drew up maps who used packing and cracking schemes to dilute the representation of black people. Lawyers successfully challenged the maps in state court and delayed the midterm primary elections from March to May to argue the corrections.
Black voters in Alabama are also fighting back, claiming in lawsuits that the state’s GOP failed to account for population growth in a new map of congressional districts. And especially for the representation of a black community that comprises 27% of the electorate, a three-judge federal panel agreed with defenders that Alabama’s GOP map violates the VRA and must be corrected. However, the United States Supreme Court overturned the decision in a 5-4 decision, allowing the cards to remain in effect while the case is argued in lower courts.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, voters are challenging GOP-drawn maps for state and congressional districts. The crowding of black voters — and the cracking of other racial minority communities — into suburban Atlanta’s congressional districts has caused notable controversy. (Blacks make up about 35% of Peach State’s population.) Lawyers filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the GOP legislature of diluting black representation in Congress and the state legislature.
It’s hard to believe we’re doing this again, but nearly six decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, black voters still need to stand up for the constituencies that represent their interests. As in the past, the usual instances of appeal are state and federal courts, local and state legislatures, mayors and governors. As of December 2021, about 28 lawsuits have been filed opposing the new congressional maps on grounds of racial discrimination, according to the Brennan Center.
And it all stems from how SCOTUS effectively neutered the VRA in 2013.
Congress had the opportunity to address the denial of voting and representation in January by passing the “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act,” a merger of two suffrage bills sponsored by the Democrats, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Act. But the bill died in the Senate.
If passed, the law would have established new protections against racial discrimination in voting and election administration. The John Lewis Act alone would have revived the provisions of the VRA weakened by the Supreme Court.
However, Congress still has a chance to revisit the issue and get it right. That chance lies in bipartisan talks on a future bill known as the “Vote Count Act,” which would reform the way votes for president are vetted by the Electoral College and certified by Congress — and for avoid a repeat of the chaos of the January 6 uprising.
Still, the ECA may be the last best hope to fight the discrimination in voting unleashed by the Supreme Court. Democrats and moderate Republicans must incorporate key provisions of the John Lewis Act into any bill. It is time to end the racial chaos in our democratic system.