Voting Rights Still “Under Siege,” Says New Coalition for Redistricting Reform

Voting Rights Still “Under Siege,” Says New Coalition for Redistricting Reform

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photo: Kathay Feng of Common Cause and Tom Saenz of MALDEF spoke at a press conference in San Francisco (Semany Gashaw/NAM).

One year after the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, which weakened protections for minority voters under the Voting Rights Act, a group of civil rights and democracy organizations has come together to fight back through redistricting reform.

“Redistricting is not just about drawing maps, it’s about whose voice counts in our democracy,” says Marcia Johnson-Blanco, the co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups in the coalition.

“At a time when voting rights are under siege, and the Supreme Court has nullified one of the most important provisions of the Voting Rights Act which gave communities of color a voice and a stake in the issues that govern our country, it’s now important for us to work together to push back.”

Johnson-Blanco spoke at a press conference last week where coalition members including the Lawyers’ Committee, Common Cause, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) presented a set of 10 principles that they hope will serve as a framework for future redistricting across the country.

States redraw their district lines every 10 years, when new census data on population changes becomes available, in order to ensure that citizens are able to choose their representatives fairly. The coalition currently includes 16 organizations and hopes to expand, with a plan of working with communities to advocate to legislatures and local redistricting commissions to turn the principles into adopted policies in advance of the next round of redistricting, following the 2020 census.

The principles emphasize continued compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, which provides protections for voters of color in electing candidates of their choice.

“There is an active effort by political parties and political operatives to manipulate our elections and manipulate the way that district lines are drawn in order to preserve their own power and, in a lot of ways, to prevent up and coming communities of color from participating in that seat of democracy,” said Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director at Common Cause, which lobbies for accountable government.

Carl Hum, the vice president of policy and programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), spoke about the detrimental effect of the Shelby decision, which “effectively struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act” that required certain states with a history of discriminatory practices “to pre-clear their redistricting plans and other electoral processes with the Department of Justice.”

In the ruling last June, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the historically discriminatory practices in the states subject to the pre-approval provision (which were mostly states in the South) were no longer a reality, so the provision was no longer necessary. Since then, several of the states in question have moved forward with new restrictions, like voter ID laws.

Speakers also focused on the importance of transparency in the redistricting process.

“Decision making is happening between map drawers and decision makers behind closed doors without any access to what’s said, to what’s drawn, without any meaningful public input about what’s being considered,” said Tom Saenz, the president of MALDEF.

The principles stipulate that meetings of decision makers must be accessible to the public, and informational materials and interpretation services must be available in languages other than English according to the communities involved.

Additionally, the organizations agree that proposed maps must be subject to public input, and that relevant information about decision makers must be disclosed to the public – for example, financial conflicts of interest or relationships with incumbents or candidates for office in areas being redistricted.

Other organizations currently supporting the principles include the Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Saenz adds that the principles provide “an important backdrop” to all kinds of redistricting, not just state-level legislative redistricting.

Saenz gives the example of local redistricting in California, where he says that in the last round of redistricting, 9 of the state’s 58 counties, each with its own board of supervisors, “could have drawn a compact Latino majority district where Latino voters would have the opportunity to elect the supervisor of their choice, and they failed to do that.”

“In those cases, all of the lines were being drawn by incumbent supervisors who were basically drawing the lines for themselves,” he said. “You have officeholders who for very self-serving reasons denied that there was any racially polarized voting in their county.”

“That’s the kind of decision making that’s still happening in California,” he said.

Feng echoed his concerns and spoke to the need for continued work on redistricting processes nationwide. “You want your vote to matter and you want the people who you choose to really reflect your issues,” she said. “Whether it was the [candidate] you wanted or not, you want them to listen to you, and that can only happen if … we make sure that the districts that are drawn, and which our elected representatives hail from, represent the communities that we live in.”