BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — When Press Robinson registered to vote in South Carolina in 1963, he was handed a copy of the U.S. Constitution and told to read it aloud and interpret.
Robinson, then a sophomore in college, was not surprised. He heard stories of other members of the Southern black community who faced Jim Crow-era methods of suppressing black votes – from literacy tests to poll taxes to the infamous “test of jelly” which required potential voters to guess how many little candies were in a jar.
As Robinson began to read, he thought of the woman behind him who was also registering to vote for the first time: his 43-year-old mother, who had never fulfilled her constitutional right, partly out of fear that she would meet this exact situation. .
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act banned discriminatory voting practices from many Southern states, where Jim Crow laws also limited how and where black people could live, work, eat, and study.
Yet nearly 60 years later, Robinson and civil rights activists say those gains are eroding. In Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, new congressional cards that some justices say dilute the power of black voters are being used in upcoming elections.
Civil rights leaders fear the maps could reduce minority representation on Capitol Hill. The issue is particularly contentious this year, when Democrats — traditionally favored by minority voters — are battling to hold onto narrow midterm congressional majorities that tend to reward the party that isn’t in the White House.
“I’m hurt. I’m shocked. I’m disappointed,” Robinson, 85, said. “I’m also a little scared, because I don’t know where this is all going.”
Every 10 years, state legislators, armed with new information from the US Census Bureau, redraw political maps for seats in the US House, State Senate, and State House. It is usually an extraordinarily partisan process, with each major party trying to muster enough of its voters to secure victories in the most constituencies. Borders determine which political parties will make decisions that will have a profound impact on people’s lives, such as abortion, gun control and how billions of tax dollars are spent.
Under the Voting Rights Act, map makers are required to draw districts with a plurality or majority of African Americans or other minority groups if they live in a relatively compact area with a white population that votes very differently from them.
Republican lawmakers have often used this to their advantage by filling a district with Democratic-leaning African-American voters, leaving the remaining seats whiter and more Republican.
Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama and Louisiana produced such maps after receiving the latest 2020 U.S. Census numbers. In both cases, Democrats and civil rights groups sued in court and the courts ordered that new maps be drawn.
In Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the lower court’s decision, essentially saying there wasn’t enough time to redraw the maps before the election and would resume arguments in the fall. The court also delayed a decision that would have allowed for the creation of a second majority black district in Louisiana, until it could hear arguments in the Alabama case. A decision is unlikely to come before 2023.
In Florida, the GOP-led legislature approved — and an appeals court upheld — a map created by Republican Governor and potential 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis that would dismantle at least one district where blacks have their say at the ballot box.
“What this ultimately means is that (black voters) won’t have as big a voice as they should if constituencies were drawn more evenly,” said Robert Hogan, professor and director of the department of political science at Louisiana State University.
In Alabama, GOP lawmakers have grouped most black voters into just one of seven congressional districts, even though blacks make up 27% of the state’s population.
In Louisiana, where nearly a third of the state’s population is black, GOP lawmakers approved a map containing five majority-white districts, all of which favor Republican incumbents. The 2nd Congressional District, held by Democratic US Representative Troy Carter, is the only majority black district. It stretches from the New Orleans area along the Mississippi River to the capital, Baton Rouge.
Democrats and black activists want two black-majority districts instead of just one.
“We want our seat at the table,” Louisiana state Rep. Denise Marcelle, a Democratic and black caucus member, said during a recent legislative session. ” It is very simple. …Give us the opportunity to elect another black seat so we can fight for the issues we think our people want us to fight for.
But Republican leaders say placing the state’s widely dispersed black population in two districts would actually result in very narrow black majorities that could diminish the power of black voters.
There’s also another reason why the GOP generally opposes — and Democrats support — other majority black districts. For decades, black voters overwhelmingly voted Democratic. Adding majority black districts could bolster party representation in the House.
“(Republicans) want to use the Voting Rights Act to the extent that it helps put all African Americans in one district and creates very uncompetitive, heavily Republican districts around it,” Hogan said. “But, when you take the Voting Rights Act too far and try to create a second district…you take away the Republicans.”
The way Robinson sees it, however, it’s not about more Democratic seats and fewer Republican seats; these are basic rights that black people have fought too long and hard to let go.
“It’s 2022. I thought once we got past those initial hurdles in the ’60s, things would really move forward and we’d be treated like regular Americans,” Robinson said. “But we are not.”
Sara Cline, The Associated Press