In February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a groundbreaking series on the Voting Rights Act and the potential fallout of Section 5’s demise. Part one explores these themes through the lens of a single Georgia county.
As David Wickert writes :
The Voting Rights Act profoundly reshaped the political life of Georgia and the nation, and nowhere are its effects more starkly visible than in Fulton County. In the nearly half-century since it was enacted in 1965, blacks and other minority candidates have surged into elected office at every level. In places such as Fulton County, many white residents voted with their feet, moving out to less racially diverse areas. Proposed annexations and redistrictings could—and often did—become an overt or covert struggle over racial power. That tension is still very much alive today.
The story goes on to explain just how alive the struggle is: Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature recently unveiled a new redistricting plan, which could dilute the power of black voters; “Among other things,” Wickert writes, “the plan would produce a new white-majority district and would pit two incumbent Democrats—both African-Americans—against each other.” These changes, which are under review by the Justice Department, probably wouldn’t pass Section 5 muster. But if the provision is struck down they won’t have to—a fact that drives home the stakes of the upcoming ruling as few stories have.
It’s worth noting that Fulton County’s situation is not unusual: Dozens of voting-system changes are awaiting Justice Department approval. If Section 5 disappears, even those that are patently discriminatory will go into effect.
You can find a wealth of information about specific cases on the Justice Department website.
A Texas Tale
Around the time the Journal-Constitution series ran, Emily Bazelon of Slate turned the spotlight on a power grab in Texas’s 23rd congressional district, which runs along the state’s southwest border. As Bazelon reports, the area is “among the least densely populated terrain in the country—and the most electorally disputed.” In 2006, a Democrat named Ciro Rodriguez snatched the district’s House seat from the Republican incumbent, after which the Republican National Committee targeted it for retaking. As Bazelon explains:
[The Republican] party politicians who controlled the state legislature and the latest round of redistricting after the 2010 census, effectively took Rodriguez’s seat away, handing it off to Republican Francisco Canseco—a Latino, but not the candidate most Latino voters supported. That, at least, is what was implied in a decision by three federal judges in Washington, D.C., who last August rejected the new map for District 23—along with the maps for the rest of the Texas congressional delegation, and the state Senate and House. (Two of the judges are Republican appointees. The third is an Obama pick.)
As the judges tell the story, the Republicans and their mapmakers tried for a particularly sophisticated circumvention of the Voting Rights Act in District 23. They didn’t reduce the percentage of Hispanic voters—they increased it, by 0.1 percent. But along the way, in the words of the court, the line-drawers “consciously replaced many of the district’s active Hispanic voters with low-turnout Hispanic voters in an effort to strengthen the voting power of CD 23’s Anglo citizens. In other words, they sought to reduce Hispanic voters’ ability to elect without making it look like anything in CD 23 had changed.” As proof, the judges pointed to an email from the lawyer for the Texas House speaker to one of the mapmakers, urging him “to help pull the districts’ Total Hispanic Pop and Hispanic CVAPs [citizen voting age population] up to majority status, but leave the Spanish Surname and [turnout numbers] the lowest.” This would be “especially valuable in shoring up Canseco,” the email continued.
The District 23 saga is a classic example of the partisan misbehavior that the Voting Rights Act, and in particular a part of the law called Section 5, was enacted to stop.