Category Archives: Voting Rights Act

“New maps spark debate over majority-minority districts”

AP:

For decades, the widely accepted strategy was to group together Black voters so they comprised a majority in a statehouse or congressional district. That principle was enshrined in the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires the creation of districts with a majority or plurality of Black — or other minority racial or ethnic group — voters in places where the white population has a history of preventing them from electing their chosen representatives.

That strategy was reinforced by partisan politics. Republicans have been happy to draw districts with large numbers of Black voters because Black voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats. The effect was to pack Democrats into just a few districts and leave other parts of the state more safely Republican.

But politics has changed dramatically since the law was passed in 1965. Now, only 18 of the 53 members of the Congressional Black Caucus were elected in districts that are majority African American. Rising Black politicians like Rep. Antonio Delgado and Rep. Joe Neguse represent heavily white areas in New York’s Hudson River Valley and Boulder, Colorado respectively.

“I think we’re in a new age now,” said Bakari Sellers, an African American former South Carolina state legislator. “If you’re talented enough, you can win in a 30-35% Black district. … We can be more competitive around the country.”

But that’s a hard sell to some lawmakers and advocates pushing to put more people of color in statehouses and Congress. Black legislators make up less than 10% of state legislators in the U.S., although 14.2% of the population is Black, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Latinos are 18.7% of the population and just 5.3% of state lawmakers. Asians comprise 2% of legislators but 7.2% of the population.

In Nevada, Latino and other activist groups opposed maps drawn by the Democratic-controlled Legislature because the plan spread Latinos broadly around the state’s congressional and legislative districts to increase the odds of Democratic victories. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers asked a commission to propose maps to counter ones drawn by the GOP-controlled Legislature. But Black and Latino Democrats objected to the commission’s maps because they would scatter minority voters across several districts.

“I get what Republicans have done, completely, but I’m not willing to sacrifice Black representation and brown representation, I’m just not,” said Sen. Lena Taylor, one of two African American Democrats in the Wisconsin state Senate, who voted against her party’s map.

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“In historic vote, O.C. supervisors approve majority-Latino district for five-member board”

LAT:

In a historic vote, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Monday created a majority-Latino district for the first time while also giving power to Asian voters.

The lines for the supervisors’ districts, redone once a decade after the national census, have long been drawn in a way that makes it hard for Latinos to be elected, despite the ethnic group’s rapid growth.

It has been 15 years since there was a Latino representative on the five-member board, which oversees a roughly $7.7-billion budget.

Many advocates celebrated the vote Monday afternoon, saying it was a seismic shift that could help Latinos elect candidates who can advocate for issues crucial to their communities, including housing and healthcare — needs that have been highlighted by the pandemic….

Still, the final map makes three of five districts majority Republican, despite GOP registration in the county trending downward, said Julia Gomez, an ACLU staff attorney.

Gomez called the creation of a Latino-majority district “a huge victory” for the county. But she also alleges that the southern section of the county was gerrymandered in a way that reduces the influence of Democratic voters.

“So, it’s really a partial victory for community members,” she said.

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“As Gerrymanders Get Worse, Legal Options to Overturn Them Dwindle”

Michael Wines for the NYT:

Voting-rights advocates are in a North Carolina state court in Raleigh this month, arguing in three lawsuits that Republican gerrymanders of the State Legislature and the state’s 14 seats in the House of Representatives are so extreme that they violate the state Constitution.

Only two years ago, some of the same lawyers were arguing that remarkably similar Republican gerrymanders of the same legislature, drawn a decade ago, violated the same clauses of the constitution. That trial ended with a resounding verdict in their favor, but only after the gerrymandered maps were used for almost a decade.

Winning those kinds of cases, however belatedly, now appears much more of a long shot. Experts say that even as gerrymanders become ever more egregious, the legal avenues to overturn them are becoming narrower.

“The good news is that litigation will probably go a little faster than in the last decade,” Richard L. Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, and a longtime critic of gerrymanders, said this past week. “The bad news is that it will progress faster because the plaintiffs will lose.”…

Under Voting Rights Act rules in place before the Supreme Court gutted the law in 2013, “the Justice Department wouldn’t have approved these maps,” said Allison Riggs, the co-executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing plaintiffs in one lawsuit.

But that is not the only legal avenue constricted in recent years.

The Supreme Court in 2019 ended a decades-long debate over the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering, saying it was up to Congress, not the courts, to fix politically skewed maps.

The court also has made it harder to prove that political districts were drawn to reduce minority voters’ clout, a violation of the remaining rules of the Voting Rights Act. A 2018 Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case said that a state’s record of racial discrimination in redistricting — long a factor in such cases — couldn’t override the assumption that lawmakers were acting in good faith, even when they drew districts that clearly locked in their own power.”

That ruling, with the green light for partisan gerrymandering, is prompting lawmakers to try to dodge lawsuits with a new argument: Maps that dilute minority votes aren’t racially biased. They’re just efforts to neuter political rivals….

Given the long odds facing federal lawsuits, the switch to state courts may become a trend. “There’s a surprising number of opportunities for these state constitutional challenges,” said Marina K. Jenkins, the director of litigation and policy at the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an arm of the Democratic Party.

The reason is that states offer a clear avenue to attack unfair maps that is absent in federal lawsuits. Forty-nine state constitutions enshrine a right to vote (Arizona, the exception, has an implicit voting-rights guarantee), and 30 require that elections be free or “free and equal.” The federal Constitution contains neither clause.

Both a North Carolina three-judge panel in 2019 and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2018 cited guarantees of free and equal elections in rulings striking down partisan gerrymanders. That could guide other states in interpreting similar clauses, said Joshua A. Douglas, an expert on state election laws at the University of Kentucky law school.

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“Latino, Asian American, LGBTQ activists: They want to shape California’s congressional maps”

LAT:

Activists are urging the creation of a congressional district that links LGBTQ populations in Long Beach and coastal northern Orange County. Civil-rights groups say a plan to split up a Los Angeles-area district — the most heavily Latino in the nation — violates the Voting Rights Act. Asian Americans warn that a proposal to carve the San Gabriel Valley into pieces would dilute their voice at a time of terrifying violence against their community.

These are just a few of the concerns that an independent state commission is weighing as it races to complete the once-every-decade redrawing of congressional districts by Christmas.

“Our goal is fair maps, and fair maps mean we must follow the process that is before us, that we do it in a transparent manner and the public is meaningfully engaged and has an opportunity to influence the maps and line drawing in a public manner,” said Pedro Toledo, a member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission and a no party preference voter from Petaluma. “And that’s what makes it a little bit messy.”

“Not everyone is going to be happy,” he said.

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“Ohio Republicans’ redistricting map dilutes Black voters’ power in Congress, critics say”

Colby Itkowitz, Washington Post

Legal challenge, including on state constitutional grounds, expected if Governor Mike DeWine signs the new map into law. Either way, “the map will only be in effect for four years, since fewer than one-third of legislative Democrats approved of it.” But in the meanwhile, this is what happened despite 2018 constitutional amendment aimed to end partisan gerrymandering. Republicans argue the tilt to their party is justified by the fact that they have won approximately 80% of state-wide races over the last 16 cycles.

Note: Article also includes Democratic and Republican voters’ views about the impact of gerrymandering on governance.

“Here in Cincinnati, where Black residents make up almost half of the population, state Republican officials drew a congressional map 10 years ago that sliced through the city, dividing urban neighborhoods into districts dominated by further flung, predominantly White areas.

A constitutional amendment approved by 75 percent of Ohio voters in 2018 was supposed to endthat partisan gerrymandering, requiring — among other changes —that cities like Cincinnati be left whole.

So when Republican state lawmakers released a map this week, they split Black voters another way: keeping all of Cincinnati together but combining it with distant, conservative White areas, and divvying up the remaining and diverse parts of Hamilton County between two other seats. The result: three districts in which Black Democratic voters are offset by White Republicans. Only one will probably be competitive.”

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Breaking—Alabama’s New Political Maps Challenged as Racial Gerrymanders

ACLU Press Release

Individual voters joined with civil rights and faith groups, including the Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, to file a pair of lawsuits challenging Alabama’s newly drawn political maps for state legislative and congressional districts.

Plaintiffs argue Alabama’s new state district maps violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and its congressional map also violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“The lawsuits cite Alabama’s ‘sordid history’ of its white majority using racial discrimination to maintain power. The suits charge that the newly drawn congressional redistricting map denies Black residents equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of choice . . . .”

Plaintiffs are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Hogan Lovells LLP, and the firm Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher & Goldfarb.

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“The Consequences of Redistricting Without a Safety Net”

Michael Barajas for the Texas Observer:

For decades, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to protect minority voters by forcing Texas and other states with a history of race-based voter suppression to clear changes to election laws, including new political maps, with the federal government first. That so-called preclearance requirement, under Section 5 of the law, stopped Texas’ maps from immediately taking effect the last time lawmakers redrew them in 2011, eventually forcing compromise interim maps that the state later adopted and mostly used for the rest of the decade. In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled that section of the Voting Rights Act and ended preclearance, leaving Texas without federal oversight for this latest round of late and hurried mapmaking. 

“The Supreme Court put the burden on voters to have to prove discrimination before maps get used,” says Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), one of several groups that have sued to challenge the new maps. “Sure, the Supreme Court didn’t know then that we were going to have a delayed census because of the pandemic, but now there’s a perfect storm in Texas. … We have a very late set of maps that are discriminatory, and no Section 5 to block them before Texas tries to use them in the March primary.” 

MALDEF and several other voting rights groups have sued Texas over the past several weeks to try and stop the state from holding elections under the new maps, accusing GOP lawmakers of drawing new district lines with the intent to discriminate against voters of color and dilute their political influence. They point to the fact that Hispanic people made up half the state’s population growth over the last decade, and yet new state House and congressional maps reduce the number of districts in which Hispanic people are the majority of eligible voters. They also accuse Republican lawmakers of cracking and packing communities of color by spreading them out among several districts or crowding them into others in order to diminish their influence. 

In its lawsuit against the state filed earlier this month, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus tied the new maps to a larger political climate demonizing Latinx people. “The Texas Legislature is not redistricting in a vacuum, and the racial dynamics of modern political appeals villainizing Latinos, and intimidation tactics meant to discourage their participation, have proliferated in recent years,” the lawsuit reads. The filing cites numerous recent examples of anti-Hispanic hate, including the 2019 El Paso shooting that killed 23 people and injured 23 others. 

Judicial blindness to racist voting laws in Texas likely emboldened the latest round of GOP gerrymandering in the state. In a Georgetown Law Journal article last year, elections law expert Rick Hasen pointed to a series of recent Supreme Court rulings, including the case involving Texas maps passed last decade, that have paved the way for more partisan gerrymandering, racial gerrymandering, restrictive election laws and minority vote dilution. Voting rights advocates had long hoped that judges might put Texas back under federal preclearance for election changes due to the state’s long history of racist voting laws, but that also seems unlikely thanks to recent rulings. 

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Is Joe Manchin Deluding Himself or Trying to Delude Others on Voting Rights?

Politico:

Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a fourth Democratic attempt to begin considering elections and voting legislation on the floor, casting fresh doubt on the majority party’s ability to enact any type of reform this Congress.

In a 50-49 vote, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined Democrats to move forward on legislation that would restore a requirement that certain jurisdictions receive a green light from the Justice Department or a D.C.-based federal court before changing voting laws or procedure….

“This is our fourth, and I think final, attempt to find partners across the aisle who will defend the right of every American to vote,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) “We’ve given it every possible effort over now five months, four different strategies. It’s not going to happen, so we’re going to have to do it with 50 members. And we’re going to have to sit down and decide how we’re going to do it.”

That’s not necessarily the conclusion Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), is coming to, after extensive outreach to the other side of the aisle on voting. “We’ve got Lisa Murkowski, we just need nine more,” Manchin said. “We need other people to be talking to each other and find a pathway forward. It can’t just be one or two people talking to both sides.”…

While progressives widely viewed Democrats’ other elections and ethics reform as the vehicle to kill the filibuster, there’s no sign that Manchin or his colleague Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) will relax their opposition to scrapping the 60-vote threshold required to quash a minority-party blockade of most bills in the upper chamber. And Manchin has already indicated he does not support a carveout just for voting.

“We need two people to change their minds,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “At least two Democrats need to change their minds on the filibuster.”

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“U.S. Senate Democrats return to voting rights with eye on filibuster”

Reuters:

U.S. Senate Democrats will try to advance voting rights legislation in the face of overwhelming Republican opposition for a fourth time on Wednesday, amid pressure to break the deadlock by altering a key Senate rule as early as this month.

The Senate is due to vote on whether to begin debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore state voting requirements to prohibit racial discrimination that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The vote is slated for 2:15 p.m. (1815 GMT).Report ad

If Republicans block it as expected, which they have done three times this year with other voting bills, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will face new calls to abolish or alter the chamber’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 of the Senate’s 100 lawmakers to agree on most legislation.

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“Could Los Angeles lose a Black congressional seat?”

LAT:

Rep. Karen Bass’ congressional district encompasses some of the most historically important African American communities in the western United States, including the “Black Beverly Hills” of Ladera Heights, the West Coast rap scene of Crenshaw and the vibrant cultural hub of Leimert Park.

But a confluence of factors — the state’s impending loss of a congressional seat for the first time in its history in the aftermath of the 2020 census, the declining Black population in this swath of Los Angeles and Bass’ decision not to seek reelection to Congress as she mounts a run for mayor — is prompting fears that the district will no longer be represented by an African American as congressional boundaries are redrawn this year.

These concerns were heightened when a state panel released preliminary maps called visualizations last week that placed Democratic Reps. Bass and Maxine Waters — the only other elected Black member of Congress from Los Angeles — in the same district, in effect eliminating a minority-led congressional seat.

There is no doubt that these maps will change; at least three more iterations will be released before the lines are finalized in December. But even before the first visualizations were made public, there were fears among residents in those districts about losing influence.

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Michigan: “Redistricting draft maps violate Voting Rights Act, civil rights director says”

Detroit News:

An independent redistricting commission’s draft maps violate the Voting Rights Act, Michigan Civil Rights Department Executive Director John Johnson Jr. said during a Wednesday hearing where most speakers said the proposals don’t give Detroit fair representation.

The proposed maps for the state House, state Senate and U.S. House fail to preserve the ability for minority voters to have a voice in government, argued Johnson, who is a member of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s cabinet.

“They dilute minority-majority districts and strip the ability for a minority voter to elect legislative representatives who reflect their community and affect any meaningful opportunity to impact public policy and lawmaking,” he said. 

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“Advocates worry Biden is letting U.S. democracy erode on his watch”

WaPo:

Voting rights advocates meet once every week or two with White House officials via video conference, and in almost every session, an advocate speaks up to say that President Biden must do more, that American democracy is under threat and the president is not meeting the challenge.

At one such meeting earlier this year, a Biden aide responded that Democrats would simply have to “out-organize” the other side, according to multiple advocates familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting. The comment infuriated advocates, who believe they are watching former president Donald Trump actively and perhaps permanently undermine faith in U.S. elections.

“There’s been a lot of anger and frustration with that line from the White House, which was communicated as a response to advocates wanting the White House to do more,” said Aaron Scherb, legislative director of Common Cause, a longtime pro-democracy group….

Activists want Biden to provide a loud, clear voice against these moves, from prime-time speeches to regular denunciations of especially egregious actions. Beyond that, they say he should throw himself into passing voting rights legislation and more aggressively go after states that are politicizing their election systems.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the account of the meeting with voting rights advocates was false. “No White House official has ever said that our strategy relied on ‘out-organizing’ anti-voter laws,” Bates said. “The president and vice president’s approach is comprehensive, and it includes passing voting rights legislation and using executive authority, the bully pulpit, the convening power of the White House, organizing, and a host of other tools.”

Still, in the months since taking office, Biden’s time and energy have largely been focused elsewhere…

Biden also makes another argument, one that particularly exasperates activists: The best way to strengthen democracy, he contends, is to show that it works, by passing the infrastructure and other bills.

But even inside the administration, some worry that too much emphasis on enacting Biden’s spending priorities could come at the expense of the need to safeguard democratic institutions.

And the approach is deeply unsatisfying to those who see the threat to democracy as akin to a house on fire. Biden’s hope that Americans will support Democrats, and democracy more broadly, if he delivers results, could be torpedoed by restrictive voting laws that make it harder to cast ballots in the first place — or by undemocratic forces with the power to reject the results of the 2022 or 2024 elections.

“Stacking election administrators and providing access to the means to control the levers of elections” is a growing threat, said Sophia Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Polls suggest that the advocates’ concern is warranted, in that the public’s faith in democracy is being badly eroded.

Surveys consistently find that about 1 in 3 Americans — and more than 6 in 10 Republicans — doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 election, despite overwhelming evidence that it was fairly decided. A CNN poll in September found that 52 percent of Americans were not confident that U.S. elections reflect the will of the people.

And changes are underway across the country that could exacerbate that distrust.

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