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How Alabama’s redistricting scandal could erode voting rights for people of color


For Letetia Jackson, voting is as important as drinking water and breathing. She has her mother to thank for fostering her beliefs.

In the late 1960s, when Jackson was just a little girl in Alabama, she always accompanied her mother to the polls. During these trips, her mother revealed the sanctity of the franchise. It was only a few years ago that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed his Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. This law was created to prohibit racism in voting and to ensure greater equality for black Americans such as Jackson and his family.

“She told us that we have a responsibility to exercise our right to vote. died For us to get that right,” Jackson told CNN. “Even in her 90s, her mother said she wanted me to take her and take her to the vote. She made up her mind to vote.”

A public policy advocate, Jackson reflected on these formative experiences during a time of uncertainty about voting rights. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Alabama’s redistricting lawsuit focused on Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits rules that “vote because of race” and “lead to the denial or reduction of rights.” Tried Merrill v. Milligan. Jackson is a Merrill plaintiff in one of the most important election cases in recent years. Depending on the court’s decision, Merrill could give states more freedom to limit the political power of black and brown Americans and curtail their access to public resources at the local level.

“It’s kind of surreal. It feels like the battle for voting rights has started again,” Jackson said. “It’s like rewinding time.”

Cadida Stone, chief field and campaign strategist for Alabama Forwards and another plaintiff, echoes some of these sentiments.

“This is a pivotal moment in history that everyone should pay attention to,” she told CNN. “But also, why are we here? Why do we have the right to vote?” Do I have to fight for

Let’s take a closer look at how Merrill influences communities of color.

In Merrill, the bench is reviewing a lower court opinion in January that blocked Alabama’s newly created map of Congress for potentially violating Section 2 of the VRA.

Although this map contains only one precinct where black voters can elect their preferred candidate to office, blacks make up 27% of the state’s voting-age population.

Lower court judges ruled that black voters “have less chance of electing their chosen I was told to form something very close.

State Senator Roger Smitherman compares House district maps during a special session on redistricting at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery on November 3, 2021.

“This decision is a victory for black voters in Alabama, who have been denied equal representation for too long,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a January statement released by the National Redistricting Foundation. said in “The court’s decision serves as a reminder that the moral arc of the universe actually bends toward justice, but it’s only possible if enough people band together to pull it toward justice.” limited.”

However, Alabama has since asked the Supreme Court to reserve that ruling. The state’s request was approved by her 5 to 4 majority.

One of Alabama’s arguments is that the VRA’s evils are essentializing race. That is, giving voters districts based on race, deepening divisions. But according to Jurij Rudensky, a senior councilor for democracy programs at the Brennan Center, that claim gets his VRA completely wrong.

“The court of first instance (a three-judge panel of two Donald Trump candidates) found that at most about 15% of white voters in the relevant area of ​​Alabama (the Black Belt area), on average, also had black voters. We also have endorsements from,” Rudensky told CNN.

This kind of polarized voting can distort the way political leaders approach different groups, leading to unequal political opportunities and perpetuating other disparities.

“VRA is for actual discrimination,” said Rudensky. “If there is a dynamic in which white voters divide the interests of black voters 85 to 15, politicians can take advantage of that racial more It uses race to boost voter turnout and drive wedges between communities that might otherwise have shared economic and other interests.”

In other words, it is not the VRA that makes race matter in public, but its failure to identify and address areas where racial disparities persist.

“Many of the arguments in favor of maintaining this map of Congress are in terms of what actually makes race decisive and what actually helps bridge some constituencies. , I think it completely sets it back…a division that has plagued the community for decades,” Ludensky said.

It’s hard to overstate Merrill’s stakes.

“This is a very critical time. A decision in this case could help shape Black political power across the South.”

It is worth noting that Alabama did not actually allege that the lower court misunderstood the VRA. Instead, the state is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider the rules governing Section 2 claims.

Rudensky said that a radical rewrite of Section 2 would “ensure that not only voters of color but also civil rights and community groups working with voters facing discrimination in re-election find relief.” would make it much more difficult, if not impossible,” he said.

In recent years, voting rights advocates have relied heavily on Section 2 protections, and the VRA continues to receive thousands of cuts.

Voting rights advocates hand out placards outside the U.S. Supreme Court on February 27, 2013, as the court prepares for the Shelby County v. Holder hearing.

Most infamously, through the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, the High Court scrutinized a history of racial discrimination in voting due to the need to obtain federal approval or “pre-clearance” before changing election laws. subverting Section 5 of the VRA by freeing up jurisdictions with

In a famous dissent, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Throwing away the preclearance that continues to work to stop discriminatory change is like throwing an umbrella in a rainstorm.” .

The proliferation of restrictive voting laws that followed Shelby proved her point.

Importantly, at Merrill, balance is not just about the abstract notion of fair representation.

“The underlying logic of the VRA is that political equality will more naturally resolve systemic inequalities in areas such as education, housing, health care and employment,” Rudensky said. “And the reality is that it bears out. If you look at the location, it has significantly improved economic outcomes, especially for the black community.”

In other words, the VRA paved the way for the middle class, enabling long marginalized racial groups in the United States to become economically self-sufficient.

Dowdy expressed similar sentiments. More specifically, she emphasized that reorganization directly affects the allocation of both power and public resources.

“When community members choose candidates who share their concerns and understand their needs, real change and empowerment can happen. Our district doesn’t look the best when you walk through a busy district, because the right people aren’t always fighting to get the right resources,” says Dowdy.

She added, “It’s as easy as that.”

In the coming months, seasoned courtroom watchers will have a lot to parse. They scrutinize oral arguments and try to find out where various judges stand on the issue.

On Tuesday, members of the court’s conservative majority appeared to reject Alabama’s more extreme claims while trying to find a way to preserve Alabama’s congressional map.

Rudensky said that if the past few years are any guide, the Merrill case is a very important case and one that could probably cause a violent division in court, so opinions will be released towards the end of his term. He said it was likely.

Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director for the ACLU in Alabama, which is involved in the redistricting lawsuit, emphasized that the opportunity for voters of color to have their voices heard is at stake.

“We are still fighting an old battle,” she told CNN. “Whether black voters have an equal chance to elect the candidate of their choice remains an open question. You must not.”

In some ways, Jackson sees this moment as a reminder of just how valuable the franchise is.

“I feel like we (black Americans) have never been truly accepted as full citizens of this country,” she said. our votes conduct matter. If our vote doesn’t matter, they’re not going to strip it any time soon.”

Or, as Dowdy said, “It’s a reminder to never get too comfortable.”

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