When the Senate voted against the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act in January 2022, it dealt a blow to voting rights and to the hopes of civil rights advocates awaiting its passage.
The Law needed to pass said Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice, if we are to have some way of “blunting the attacks on our democracy in the form of unfair maps, laws restricting access to voting, and attempts to provide partisan actors more opportunity to meddle in election outcomes.”
Voters of color face a deliberate erosion of their civil rights from a wave of restrictive voting laws and partisan gerrymandering sweeping across the southern states. The John R. Lewis Act included legislation against laws that target voters of color.
Civil rights advocates at a Jan 14 EMS briefing on gerrymandering and voter suppression challenged the recent spate of redistricting that impacts representation for rapidly growing communities of color in their states. The new maps reduce and dismantle opportunities for people of color (POC) to participate in fair democratic processes.
In Texas, North and South Carolina, legislatures are drawing maps that discriminate against black, AAPI and Latinx voters, said Mitchell Brown, Voting Rights Counsel at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
The Brennan Center reported that in 2021, 19 states passed 34 voting laws restricting access to the right to vote – a wave that is likely to continue in 2022.
“It breaks my heart that in our country we have to deal with such viciousness when it comes to drawing lines for creating fair opportunities to elect people that we want to choose,” remarked Charles Mann of CROWD, South Carolina.
“Our democracy is under attack.”
The 2020 Census recorded significant increases in ethnic minority populations, but this growth will remain underrepresented in southern state legislatures after they passed redistricting laws that undermined the POC vote.
North Carolina, explained Brown, claimed it used ‘race blind criteria’ in an effort to draw maps that would not be struck down by federal or state court. But ignoring racial data meant not acknowledging where black people live or allowing them opportunities to elect candidates of choice, ultimately diluting the black vote in NC.
“We see that as potentially discriminatory,” said Brown.
Black voters were carved up in various urban centers in Raleigh and Charlotte even though the legislature said they did not look at racial data. And two black state Senators were reconfigured out of their districts because of the way the maps were drawn.
“You have to suspend belief to think that they don’t know where black voters are,” added Brown.“In NC race and politics are intertwined.”
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice lost their case against gerrymandering and are filing an appeal at the state Supreme court.
In Houston, Deborah Chen, a lawyer and community organizer described the lack of transparency in the redistricting process. Chen, an activist at OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates in Texas, reported that maps were not made available in advance for evaluation. Notifications of hearings were untimely (some were posted in the middle of the night), and timeframes for making comments in virtual sessions were limited to 1 or 2 minutes.
Though the Census documented increases in communities of color in Texas said Chen, maps drawn at state or congressional level did not reflect that that growth.
For example, Congressional district 22 where the AAPI population increased significantly, was a viable district that could have been represented by a person of color, said Chen. It is now redrawn to dilute all people of color and is now primarily white.
At Texas Senate public hearings on redistricting, minority representatives who had flown in from out of town and were signed up to speak at the public hearings, were not invited to make comments by the committee chair, who selected ‘non-ethnic’ names instead, said Chen.
“They were hoping we would give up. They were just going through the motions. The maps were already done.”
So far, every redistricting cycle in Texas has been gerrymandered and have ended in a lawsuit. Its districts do not reflect the actual demographics of the people that that live there. Though the growth in population was among people of color, Texas gave its two new Congressional seats to white legislators.
“It’s disingenuous to claim that redistricting is race blind, “said Chen, “when it’s obvious that lines were drawn to exclude people of color from having representation.”
The Brennan Center for Justice which tracks voting legislation in every state warned that the country is in the midst of an unprecedented tidal wave of restrictive voting laws.
“We are starting the year off with more bills restricting access to voting than is normally seen in an entire year,” said Sean Morales Acting Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
In 18 states, 152 restrictive voting bills carried over from 2021 into the 2022 legislative sessions, and 13 bills restricting access to voting were pre-filed for the 2022 legislative session in four states.
“We have every reason to think that these attacks on voting rights is going to continue,” said Morales.
Trends indicate the laws are intended to restrict access to mail-in voting which gained traction during the pandemic, especially among black voters and other minority voters. The record turnout from voters of color during the 2020 election is what is driving this response of restrictive voting laws, warned Morales.
In South Carolina, Charles Mann, a redistricting intern at CROWD, organizes grassroots organizations to win reform at local levels. He mobilizes coalitions that include the League of Women Voters, equity groups, church groups, and neighborhood associations in communities, to determine what they want their district to look like. Mann encourages communities to combine their collective energy and use it as a megaphone to voice input to county and city councils, school boards and local legislative bodies
“Power lies with the people,” said Mann.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and a 2021 grantee from the USC Center for Health Journalism, reporting on domestic violence in the South Asian community.