Nov 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Ruling sets up voting-rights clash as states redraw congressional maps for '24

Exterior photo of the front of the Supreme Court building.

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

A federal appeals court's decision striking down a key tool used to enforce the Voting Rights Act could set up another clash over the landmark law before the Supreme Court.

Why it matters: The appeals panel in Arkansas ruled Monday that only the Justice Department — not individuals or groups such as the NAACP — should be allowed to file lawsuits accusing state election policies of violating the 1965 law's ban on racial discrimination.

  • The decision, written by Circuit Judge David Stras, a Trump appointee, flies in the face of decades of legal precedent.
  • The vast majority of court rulings that have shaped protections for people of color and others under the Voting Rights Act have come in cases that were brought by individuals and groups.

Zoom in: Monday's ruling comes at a time when challenges to congressional and legislative maps drawn by Republican-led legislatures in Alabama, North Dakota, Louisiana and Georgia have led judges to order those states to come up with new maps that don't limit minorities' voting power.

  • All of those challenges were brought by individuals and groups — not the Justice Department.
  • It's unclear how, or whether, those cases might be affected if the Arkansas case eventually leads to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, as many legal analysts expect.

The big picture: If states wind up complying with various court orders to redraw maps, Democrats could get a mini-windfall of new congressional seats as they hope to regain control of the House from Republicans in 2024.

  • Last month, a federal court approved a newly drawn Alabama congressional map that will expand the voting power of the state's Black residents, who make up about 30% of the state's population but were mostly in one of the state's seven congressional districts under a GOP-drawn map.
  • The new, court-approved map includes one majority-Black district — represented by the Alabama delegation's only Democrat — and another district that is 49% Black.
  • Black voters tend to heavily favor Democrats, so the change significantly boosts the odds that Alabama will have two Democratic House members after the 2024 elections.

Between the lines: In North Dakota, a federal judge ruled recently that the state's latest legislative redistricting plan violates the voting rights of Native Americans because it dilutes their voting strength.

  • U.S. District Chief Judge Peter Welte has given North Dakota's legislature until Dec. 22 "to adopt a plan to remedy the violation."

Outgoing Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is preparing to call a special session for the state's GOP-led legislature to follow a court order to redraw its congressional map.

  • Louisiana's population is 30% Black but only one of its six congressional districts has a majority Black population.
  • Georgia's GOP-controlled legislature is scheduled to return Nov. 29 for a special session to redraw several congressional districts after a federal judge ruled they violated the Voting Rights Act.
  • Black voters in Michigan are challenging the state's legislative maps, arguing that current legislative maps keep Black voters from having adequate representation in the legislature.
  • A state judged ruled in September that a Florida redistricting plan supported by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is prohibited from being used for any future U.S. congressional elections because it imposes on the voting rights of Black voters.

Yes, but: The ruling in Arkansas came in a case in which the Arkansas NAACP and others have sought to get state House districts redrawn. It's not the only such challenge that hasn't succeeded — at least not yet.

  • North Carolina could become a more Republican-leaning state under newly drawn political districts the legislature passed last month.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court signaled last month that the GOP's hold on a South Carolina district may remain despite a significant number of Black voters claiming that they were treated unfairly during redistricting.

What they're saying: "For much of the last half-century, courts have assumed that (a provision of the Voting Rights Act known as Section 2) is privately enforceable. A deeper look has revealed that this assumption rests on flimsy footing," Judge Stras wrote in his opinion in the Arkansas case.

  • "This decision by the (Arkansas) appellate court is ill-advised, cannot stand, and should be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court," Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said of the Arkansas ruling.
  • "Congress must act to protect voting rights for Black voters and voters of color."
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