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Lawsuits hope to extinguish racist gerrymandering in multiple states

Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services

The 2020 Census found that in state after state, population growth in Black, Latinx, Asian American, and Native American populations is outpacing white growth. But new voting rules working their way through state governments, including gerrymandered district maps, make it difficult for communities of color to elect people who will represent their needs and interests.

At a May 10 press briefing, voting rights and redistricting experts discussed an array of challenges they are bringing to stop redistricting schemes to either “pack” or “crack” ethnic and racial minority communities in Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, North Dakota, and Mississippi in particular, but also in other states across the country, including Arizona, Alabama, Michigan, and Louisiana.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), was joined by Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s Hilary Harris Klein; Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights’ Under Law’s Ezra Rosenberg; Sophia Lin Lakin of the ACLU; Michael Carter of the Native American Rights Fund; and Carroll Rhodes, of the NAACP.

The inability of the current U.S. Senate to pass national voting rights legislation, plus Supreme Court rulings beginning with 2013’s Shelby County (AL) v. Holder decision that ended federal oversight of election law changes in states with a history of discrimination — part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — have freed state lawmakers to pursue dozens and dozens of new voting rules just in the past few years.

Among the so-called “reforms” are limits on voting by mail and early voting, capricious voter ID laws and registration roll purges, and new laws barring people from offering water and snacks to Election Day voters waiting in long lines — and more.

In some ways, it’s a familiar story. It’s just that the rules have changed.

“The state of Texas, over the decades, has been challenged after each redistricting round,” Saenz said. “Certainly, that’s true this year. That’s particularly troubling,” he said, because the Latino community represents more than half of the state’s increase sine 2010 in citizens of voting age.

MALDEF is party to a suit due to be heard in September that consolidates 10 cases. But, he said, “It is quite clear that we have already been harmed by that wrong-headed decision in 2013 (the Shelby County v Holder case).” Without the preclearance that was eliminated in that ruling, he said, “maps will be implemented in this year’s midterm elections — for Congress, the state House, Senate and Board of Education — despite their evident flaws.”

Absent an overwhelming jump in voter participation, state courts may offer the best opportunity to restore some justice to the electoral process.

“State courts are now the only available venue for partisan gerrymandering challenges,” said Klein, of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “They have the responsibility of enforcing state constitutional provisions that are often more protective of voters than federal constitutional provisions.”

But even that role of state courts, she noted, is being challenged.

“We’re in trouble in Georgia,” Rosenberg said, and described four separate challenges to redistricting proposals, although any victories may come too late to affect elections this year, he said.

Georgia’s population has grown 10% since the last Census, he noted, but the Latinx population is up 32% and the Asian American Pacific Islander population is up 53%.

Nonetheless, in redistricting, “particularly in districts that were becoming more competitive,” he said, “the maps have been specifically designed to sap the voting power and the opportunity of voters of color to participate equally in the political process.”

“The legislature did this by moving voters of color in and out very surgically in those key districts, by packing voters of color into districts where it was not necessary to have increased numbers to give them an opportunity to participate equally, and by cracking, spreading them out among districts, thereby diluting their vote.”

Georgia is home to the notorious new ban on providing refreshments to voters waiting in line, although, Rosenberg said, “it’s known that in Georgia, black voters wait in line several times longer than white voters.”

“The fight against these redistricting maps is part of this larger fight against those who have tried to rig our democracy.”

In Alabama, “No black person has won a statewide race in over 25 years,” Lakin said. A judicial panel unanimously ruled against a new redistricting map the state legislature passed in November because it discriminated against black voters and violated the Voting Rights Act, but the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to stay (overrule) that ruling.

Echoing earlier speakers, Lakin said, the court had given states “a free pass to hold one discriminatory election.” It’s an ominous sign “that could signal a push by the conservative wing of the court to break new ground on its jurisprudence on race generally,” she said. “But we continue to push forward and fight, because we must.”

gerrymandering, voting rights
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