• August 10, 2011
    by Jonathan Arogeti

    With the redistricting debate heating up in preparation for the 2012 election, one jurisdiction that is subject to preclearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is injecting partisanship into what Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said “is not about politicians,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

    Republicans who control the process in Georgia, she explains, plan to create 49 “majority-minority” House districts, an increase of seven over the current arrangement. Abrams contends that the goal of this process is to ensure Republican two-thirds majorities so that it can enact state constitutional amendments without Democratic votes. “They accomplished this by purging the state of Georgia of white Democrats. Almost without exception in the Fulton-DeKalb area, if you are a white Democrat who is near an African-American, you were paired and you are going to have to run against one another,” said Abrams.

    Although the Voting Rights Act requires the state to preclear changes to election practices and procedures, Abrams said Republicans are using it as a weapon because the landmark law generally prevents the dilution of minority voting strength.

    “What they’ve said to every member who questioned [why] they were going to get competition … they said the Voting Rights Act made me do it,” she said. “When you use suppression by inclusion it is a violation of the Voting Rights spirit. It is a craven and cynical attempt to say we as Georgians don’t know what we’re getting.”

  • July 25, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Dr. Greg Rabidoux

    Speaking before a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, LBJ urged support for the Voting Rights Act (VRA). He implored all members to get behind it or risk being on the wrong side of history. He asserted that “Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law…can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.”

    That was then, and Justice Clarence Thomas (among others) and his assertion that the time for the Voting Rights Act has indeed come and gone, is now.

    But before we throw dirt on the VRA once and for all, a bit of context is in order.

    With the current redistricting cycle full steam ahead, the VRA becomes controlling  when plaintiffs seek to challenge newly drawn maps of legislative districts with sections (2) and (5) being invoked. Section 2 prohibits any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure” being imposed or applied to any State or political subdivision” that would “deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color” while Section (5) requires a DOJ or US District Court of DC “pre-clearance” when seeking to administer any voting qualification, procedure, standard, practice or procedure “different from that in force or effect November 1, 1964.”

    Ever since Allen v State Board of Elections (1969) the VRA (sections 2 and 5) have been the “go to” weapon in any savvy plaintiff’s arsenal to attack partisan maps that target minority representation and political voting power for dilution. But under the Roberts Court, those days may be fast coming to a halt.

    Currently, there are two cases that especially merit our close watch. Shelby County, Alabama v Holder (2010) is challenging the constitutionality of section 5. They argue that the VRA is a relic of the past and its intent to “enforce the 15th Amendment by appropriate legislation” is as outdated as hula contests and hoop skirts.

  • October 6, 2010

    Forty-five years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, "it's both a puzzle and a shame" that we are still talking about the "basic, basic issue of access to voter registration," Demos' Democracy Program director Brenda Wright told an audience during the ACS Voting Rights Symposium.

    Even during the 2008 election, which inspired many first-time voters, a 20-percentage-point disparity persisted between the numbers of higher-income Americans who were registered to vote, and the number of low-income Americans registered to vote, Wright told an audience during a panel on election administration.

    The administration of elections has become an issue of public concern over the past ten years following the 2000 election, inspiring the passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002 and prompting changes in voting technology, the voting timeline and the rights of voters.

    But "notwithstanding these substantial changes, a fundamental problem that was at the heart of the 2000 election controversy hasn't been dealt with at all," said election law professor Dan Tokaji. That problem is "pervasive partisanship" in election administration, created by the mere fact that most state chief election administrators are either elected as a candidate of one of the major political parties, or appointed by a party-affiliated official, Tokaji explained.

    A second panel during the Voting Rights Symposium discussed the voting rights landscape in the wake of two recent Supreme Court cases, Bartlett v. Strickland and NAMUDNO v. Holder.

    In NAMUDNO, the Supreme Court dodged an opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But in the past year, a number of other suits have challenged the validity of Section 5, again putting the section considered the "heart" of the Act in peril.

    These suits are on the "fast track," seeking to disrupt Section 5 in advance of the 2011 round of redistricting, said Kristen Clarke, co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Political Participation Group. But "throughout the life of the Voting Rights Act, we have found that Section 5 plays its most important role during the time of redistricting," Clarke said, noting that redistricting is "one of the most important events in American democracy," occurring only once every decade.

    Clarke rejected descriptions of the post-2008 election era as "post-racial."

    "When you conduct a close analysis of the election itself, you see that racially polarized voting remains a part of our political reality in this country," Clarke said. "Indeed, in many of the jurisdictions in which those protections apply, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and other covered jurisdictions, it's those places where we saw the highest levels of racially polarized voting during 2008 election cycle.... We need to ensure that the 2008 presidential election is not used as a pretext to unravel the very fragile gains that have been made with regard to minority voting rights over the last several years."

    Another recent Supreme Court case, Bartlett, limited Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, holding that legal claims of voter dilution under that section were not valid in districts whose voting-age population is less than 50 percent minority.

    But, noted Southern Coalition for Social Justice Executive Director Anita Earls, "I think it's important to remember that the Supreme Court said that if a jurisdiction wants to draw a district that empowers minority voters but is less than 50 percent minority, they can still do that."

    The case leaves open the opportunity for community groups to convince legislatures to be fair to minorities in their jurisdiction. Earls also pointed out that this limitation does not apply to jurisdictions that are protected by Section 5.

    Nina Perales, Southwest Legal Counsel for MALDEF, said there are many jurisdictions in which voting-age Latinos do not now make up the majority of a geographic area, but will soon comprise a majority, as much larger percentages of Latino children reach voting age.

    "Latinos are growing into majorities in jurisdictions where before they were only in the minority and this has a profound affect on how we do redistricting," Perales said.

    Watch videos of both panels below. Video of a lunchtime conversation between Congressman John Lewis and historian Taylor Branch is available here.

  • September 27, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Earls will be a panelist at ACS's Voting Rights Symposium tomorrow. For information about the symposium, click here.
    The latest reapportionment projections released by analysts yesterday have everyone guessing anew what the actual numbers will show when the Census Bureau officially delivers the results of the 2010 Census to the President at the end of this year.

    New projections suggest that New York will lose two seats in Congress, and Florida will gain two. It has long been predicted that Texas will gain four seats, and that Georgia and South Carolina will gain one each. While predicting winning and losing states in the reapportionment shuffle is fun, the mystery will be over when the actual numbers are released in December.

    The real suspense for this round of redistricting is not whether the Supreme Court will declare Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional before redistricting gets underway; the cases bringing that challenge are not likely to reach the court in time. Similarly predictable is the impact of President Obama's election on the ability to draw majority-minority districts to empower minority voters. Areas where levels of racially polarized voting have always been high continued to exhibit those voting patterns in the Obama election, and the continuing need for majority-Black or majority-Hispanic was recognized by the Supreme Court in Lulac v. Perry.

    The real mystery this time around is whether community-based groups, nonprofit organizations and other nonpartisan entities will have an impact on the redistricting process. As Alliance for Justice has made clear in a recent fact sheet, there is a lot that nonprofit organizations can do related to redistricting. They have the ability to ensure that communities of interest are taken into account in the redistricting process, and to submit plans that achieve fair representation based on their understanding of whose voices should be heard. Will those who have the power to draw the lines make the process open and transparent so that the public can participate effectively? We have the technology. The only question is whether we have the will to make it happen.

  • June 8, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
    Last week, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) issued a report entitled Captive Constituents: Prison-Based Gerrymandering and the Distortion of Our Democracy.

    As our report explains, "prison-based gerrymandering" is a practice whereby many states and local governments count incarcerated persons as residents of the areas where they are housed when election district lines are drawn. This practice distorts our democratic process by artificially inflating the population count-and thus, the political influence-of the districts where prisons and jails are located. As a result, everyone living outside of those districts suffers a dilution of their voting power.

    The easiest way to understand how prison-based gerrymandering undermines the integrity of our political process is to look at how prisons affect local elections. Most (in)famously, during the 2002 election cycle, the town of Anamosa, Iowa was divided into 4 City Council wards of about 1,370 people each. Ward 2, however, contained a state penitentiary that housed over 1,320 prisoners. Thus Ward 2's actual population was comprised of fewer than 60 non-incarcerated residents.

    Anamosa's districting plan (pictured) therefore granted the approximately 60 constituents of Ward 2 the same level of political representation accorded to over 1,300 people living in each of the other wards. Remarkably, a man was elected to Anamosa's City Council from Ward 2 on the strength of two write-in votes.

    The Anamosa example and others like it across the country make a mockery of the principle of "one person, one vote." Articulated by the Supreme Court in the seminal case Reynolds v. Sims, the one person, one vote principle requires that election districts be comprised of roughly the same number of constituents so that every person receives the same level of representation. As Anamosa illustrates, prison-based gerrymandering contravenes that basic principle of political equality.

    Unfortunately, the Anamosa pattern has been replicated throughout the country, and at all levels of government - from school boards to city councils to statewide legislatures. It is a problem that is not limited to any particular region, and that distorts democracy for both rural and urban communities alike.

    Undoubtedly, however, the communities that are the most thoroughly victimized by prison-based gerrymandering are urban communities of color-a result of the racial discrimination that infects our nation's criminal justice policies.