The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th Century when it was established in 1965. However, Shelby County v. Holder, a landmark Supreme Court case decided on June 25, 2013, rocked the civil rights world when it gutted important sections of the VRA.
Following this court decision, more than 16 states passed bills that made it more difficult for African Americans and other communities of color to access the ballot box. These obstacles led to an increase of voting rights challenges aimed at finding alternative ways to protect the stripped provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Organizations like the League (alongside talented legal partners) persuasively argued why upholding the protections within the VRA was paramount. We won may arguments, but we didn’t win them all.
Fast forward to 2019: On the litigation front, the amount voting rights cases continues to rise. This year alone, LWV brought seven redistricting cases in North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And, this month, we are currently awaiting three redistricting decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court. The timing of these decisions could not be more crucial as we gear up for the 2020 Census—which will directly impact the reapportionment of states and the redistricting cycles in 2021.
Three ways to level the playing field and protect democracy
For six years, we have talked about and worked to restore Sections 5 and 4(b) of the VRA, which requires states with a history of voting discrimination to get "preclearance" from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or practices. While some court cases have been helpful in clarifying what the lack of these protections mean to African Americans and other communities of color, they haven't helped to make our democracy whole. However, there are actions we can all take to close the gap and restore protections that are still needed in this country. Here are three ways we can all work toward a stronger democracy:
1. Demand that your congressional representatives support the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA)
A key part of the Shelby decision was instruction from the court that "the VRA had too far of a lookback provision and it is up to the legislature to modernize the VRA." Essentially, the court said that 1965 was too long ago to hold states with a history of discrimination accountable, and the fix for that was up to Congress. In response to that edict from the court, the Legislature began drafting new versions of VRA sections 4(b) and 5. These new drafts make up the VRAA, also known as HR4, which was introduced by Terri Sewell (AL) earlier this year.
The VRAA takes the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and gives it a facelift. Specifically, it updates the coverage formula’s "look-back period," applying a threshold number of violations within 15 years as a trigger for preclearance.
2. Explore the availability of independent redistricting commissions
The League believes redistricting at all levels of government must be accomplished in an open, unbiased manner with citizen participation and access at all levels and steps of the process. Independent redistricting commissions help accomplish this goal. Twenty-six states have initiative or referendum processes statewide. In 2018, four states successfully passed ballot initiatives that created citizen-led redistricting commissions (CO, UT, MO, MI). Many of these initiatives are now being challenged to limit the power citizens have in redistricting in the future.
If you’re in a state that has a ballot initiative option, we encourage your League to explore this option as a viable opportunity to gain an independent redistricting commission. And we also encourage Leagues to act as a watchdog for any legislation that makes it harder for ballot initiatives or referendums in their state to move forward, as well as to support legislation that enhances the ability of citizen-driven initiatives.
3. Get prepared and involved in the 2020 census and 2021 redistricting cycle
The upcoming census on April 1, 2020, is the launching pad for the 2021 redistricting cycle. The U.S. Census Bureau will aim to count every individual living in the United State. The resulting data will yield the total population in the country as well as determine how many congressional representatives each state will have for the next decade. Once the total number of congressional representatives are determined, state legislatures will then begin designing redistricting plans for the next decade of governance in each state.
The interdependency of the census, state reapportionment, redistricting, and elections cannot be minimized—and this dynamic also presents multiple ways for individuals to get engaged. From being a census enumerator, to helping draw citizen maps for consideration at your state legislature, to helping articulate the interests of your own community, everyone can find a role in shaping democracy in this crucial time.