Voter suppression bills are the first move in a bigger battle

Voter suppression bills are the first move in a bigger battle
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Georgia has enacted one of the most aggressive voter suppression laws of the 21st century. The law received sharp criticism from prominent corporations based in Georgia, including Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola. President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition MORE blasted the plan as “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” And, just last Thursday, a fifth lawsuit challenged the legality of the plan. 

Republican-controlled legislatures in other states are watching closely, trying their best to ferret out just how far they can go to disempower a reliable block of democratic voters. Florida and Texas Republicans stand ready to limit access to the ballot; Michigan Republicans, too, have similar voter restrictions under consideration. But these tests of boundaries are only the beginning — a mere prelude to a larger effort to weaken the political influence of African Americans. Indeed, over the next 18 months, these corporations and voter advocacy groups should expect a long, sustained and historic assault against African American voters. 

Every 10 years the Constitution mandates that federal and state legislative district boundaries be adjusted to account for changes in populations. This redistricting process provides politicians with the opportunity to select the voters who will send them to both the United States House of Representatives and both houses of a state’s legislature. In the coming months, we should expect that many Republican legislatures will abuse this process, which will harm African American voters. The usual suspects, states like Texas and Alabama, with their long history of oppression, will surely lead the way. 


Take Georgia, for example. The state has led the way in abusing the redistricting process. Indeed, in 2011, the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature left little to chance. Republicans abandoned a long-standing partnership with the University of Georgia, which provided non-partisan expertise in both law and demography. To replace this long-standing partnership, Republicans created their own Legislative and Congressional Reappointment Office, which, of course, Republicans staffed with many of their own. These same Republicans locked Democrats out at every stage by, among other acts, stacking legislative committees that oversaw the redistricting process.

This wasn’t a mere partisan power play, although such gross partisanship in redistricting should give us all pause. The Republican plan clearly diluted the political power of African Americans. The plan packed Black voters together into districts, concentrating their voting power in a few places, and, thus, diminishing their ability to influence races in majority-white districts. The plan virtually killed the ability of African Americans to form multi-racial coalitions within most districts, and often pitted Black incumbents against white incumbent democrats, thus reducing the number of legislators who might support civil rights legislation.

In the past, federal law provided safeguards to prevent legislatures from going too far in this direction. Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, for example, required states like Georgia to receive federal approval of their redistricting plans. Indeed, in 1972, 1982, 1992, 1995, and 2001, the federal government or the federal courts objected to at least one of Georgia’s redistricting plans because the plan diminished the power of Black voters. Georgia isn’t an isolated example. As recently as 2017, federal courts have concluded that Texas Republicans intentionally discriminated against Latino and Black voters. But in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, eliminating this approval process, and destroying African Americans' strongest weapon to combat attacks on their political power. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, prominent African Americans have pursued several initiatives to combat the threat of discriminatory gerrymandering. Stacey Abrams, who served in the Georgia House during the 2011 redistricting, launched Fair Fight, in part, to combat the anticipated discriminatory redistricting process. Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderOne quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors First redistricting lawsuits filed by Democratic group On The Trail: Census data kicks off the biggest redistricting fight in American history MORE, former U.S. attorney general, chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a political action committee that tries to counter discriminatory gerrymandering in swing states.

The twin assault of Georgia’s current voting restrictions and its upcoming racial gerrymandering represents merely the first wave of a larger effort to diminish African American voting strength. We should also expect states to continue to use Election Day tactics, like poll closures in Black communities or the placement of polling sites in inconvenient locations. Also, poor Election Day administration that leads to long lines or broken machines

Fighting for the rights of African American voters is a task that is both daunting and never-ending. Discriminatory redistricting creates a cyclical process that weakens political power for Black voters and political officials. This tactic is as discriminatory and as noxious as any other suppression legislation used during Jim Crow. 

Steven Wright served in the Voting Rights Section of the US Department of Justice for five years. He’s a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.