While building back the nation’s infrastructure remains the focus inside the Capital Beltway, congressional inaction on voting rights has the biggest potential to tear down years of progress for Black people in this country.
Despite the fact that communities of color in cities across the United States are organizing themselves to fulfill the Voting Rights (VRA) promise during the 2021 redistricting cycle of the United States, the loss of the VRA’s Section 5 voting protectionsIt threatens decades of hard-fought victories in favor of fair representation and equitable resources.
Voting rights advocates as far north as Wisconsin, and in Southern states like Georgia, Texas and Florida, are sounding the alarm: Without immediate federal action to restore the VRA, even our smallest towns aren’t safe from anti-democratic, racist redistricting that could have devastating impacts on people who simply want their voices heard.
Recently, in North Carolina, the Republican state legislature approved new maps for the U.S. House that could give white Republicans control of 11 out of 14 of the state’s districts. Redistricting is often less scrutinized and given less attention at the local level, where there is still concern about the loss of Black representation and votes.
North Carolina’s Lee County, currently at the center of a decades-long gerrymandering debate, is just the latest consequence of the 2013 Shelby County decision gutting what’s known as the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act: Last month, Lee County’s commissioners manipulated the county’s only Black voting district and threatened to roll back Black voters’ abilityto elect the candidates of their choice
The VRA’s preclearance provision, which prohibits certain jurisdictions from implementing changes affecting voting without preapproval, would have prevented such manipulation by protecting districts that allow voters of color to elect their preferred candidates.
The county is one of the 10 southern counties named after the Confederate slaveholding Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It has been elected for many years by its commissioners. at-large system — where all the county’s voters can vote for each candidate — which all but guaranteed electoral victories for white majorities.
The Lee County NAACP filed suit against the VRA in 1989. They claimed that the at-large system denied Black residents an opportunity to elect their candidate. Due to the VRA lawsuit, a larger board was formed and a new method of election was adopted. It now has a majority of single member districts and is a hybrid system. The 1989 agreement between the county commissioners and the VRA lawsuit explicitly recognized this fact. resolution Lee County’s “desir[e] to increase the opportunity for Black voters to elect candidates of their choice.”
Instead, Lee County’s Republican commissioners rammed through a voting map dramatically decreasing the Black population and shoring up the white population in District 1, the county’s only opportunity district for communities of color. District 1 is currently represented by Commissioner Robert Reives, Sr., the county’s only Black elected commissioner. Lee County chose to focus on the political power of declining white population rather than exploiting the growth in communities of color.
This is part of a perverse trend, which is also reflected in the South’s new congressional district lines and states drawing new state lines. In fact, GOP legislatures will finally complete redistricting in 20 states covering 187 congressional districtsThis is in contrast to Democrats who control the process only in eight states with 75 district.
Some commissioners ignored warnings against drawing maps to gain political advantage. They also refused the public an opportunity to comment on changes made to districts for communities for people of color by refusing open hearings that would have allowed Lee County residents to ask questions, give alternatives, or hold elected officials responsible.
Without the VRA’s federal preclearance provisions, discriminatory redistricting plans like those in Lee County cannot be stopped.
The struggle of Black voters in Lee County in North Carolina is not unique. Fayetteville’s white politicians were defeated, dissatisfied with a majority-Black city council constructed from VRA protected districts. waging their own dangerous campaign to change election methods in the state’s sixth-largest city, designed to upend majority-minority districts and return the city to a racist at-large system. Pair this trend with local “prison gerrymandering” efforts that purposefully shift political power away from cities where more Black people live to smaller, majority-white prison towns where predominantly Black people are incarcerated, and once again voters of color everywhere from Mobile, Alabama, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are paying a political price.
These efforts to weaken local Black voting power is a real-life consequence of congressional inaction. Lee County, Fayetteville, Milwaukee and other places are at risk not only of losing their representation, but also of losing the resources they need to provide housing, jobs, and environmental protections.
In 1965, Congress made a promise of hundreds of communities like the ones in Lee County. In 2021, it’s time they ensured that decades of struggle and sacrifice were not in vain.
To strengthen the VRA and bring back its core protections, Congress must pass John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Also, the Freedom to Vote Act must be passed as soon as possible. Robust voting rights protections are the only bulwark against racist redistricting that we’ve witnessed across the South and the latest wave of anti-voter legislation happening now across the country.