New congressional maps reduce black power, critics say

Baton Rouge, La. (AP) — When Press Robinson registered to vote in South Carolina in 1963, he was given a copy of the U.S. Constitution and told to read it aloud and interpret it.

Robinson, then a sophomore in college, wasn’t surprised. He heard stories from others in the black community of the South who faced Jim Crow-era methods to suppress the black vote – from literacy tests to poll taxes to the infamous “jello test” that required prospective voters to guess how many of small candies were in a container.

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 exercised her constitutional right, in part out of fear of facing this very situation. .

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices in many Southern states, where Jim Crow laws also restricted how and where blacks could live, work, eat, and study.

But nearly 60 years later, Robinson and civil rights activists say those gains are eroding. In Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, new congressional maps that some judges have ruled dilute the power of black voters are being used in upcoming elections.

Civil rights leaders worry the maps could reduce minority representation on Capitol Hill. The issue is particularly contentious this year, when Democrats — traditionally favored by minority voters — struggle to maintain slim majorities in Congress in midterms that tend to reward the party not the White House.

“I’m shocked. I’m shocked. I’m disappointed,” said an 85-year-old Robinson. “I’m also a little scared, because I don’t know where this is going.”

Every 10 years, state legislators, armed with new information from the U.S. Census Bureau, redraw political maps for seats in the U.S. House, Senate and state House. It is usually a highly partisan process, with each major party trying to garner enough voters to guarantee wins in the largest number of constituencies. Boundaries determine which political parties will make decisions that 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, cartographers are required to draw areas 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 completely differently than they do.

Republican lawmakers have often used this to their advantage, filling a district with Democratic-leaning African-American voters, leaving the rest of the seats whiter and more Republican.

Both the Republican-dominated Alabama and Louisiana legislatures produced such maps after receiving the latest numbers from the 2020 U.S. Census. In both cases, Democrats and civil rights groups sued and courts ordered new maps to be drawn.

In Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court put the lower court’s decision on hold, essentially saying there wasn’t enough time to redraw the maps ahead of the election and that it would take up arguments in the fall. The court also delayed a decision that would have allowed a second majority-black district to be created in Louisiana until it could hear arguments in the Alabama case. Any decision is unlikely to be issued before 2023.

In Florida, the GOP-led legislature approved — and an appeals court upheld — a map created by Republican Gov. and potential 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis that would have gutted at least one district where blacks have a strong say in ballot boxes.

“What this ultimately means is that (black voters) won’t have as much of a voice as they would if the districts were fairer,” said Robert Hogan, professor and chairman of Louisiana State University’s political science department.

In Alabama, GOP lawmakers picked up the most black voters in just one of seven congressional districts, even though blacks make up 27 percent 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 that favor incumbent Republicans. The 2nd Congressional District, held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, is the only district with a Black majority. It stretches from the New Orleans area along the Mississippi River to the capital city of Baton Rouge.

Democrats and Black activists want two black-majority districts instead of one.

“We want our seat at the table,” Louisiana state representative Denise Marcel, a member of the Democratic-Black Caucus, said during a recent legislative session. “It’s very simple. … Give us the opportunity to elect another Black seat so we can fight for the issues we believe our people want us to fight for.”

But Republican leaders say splitting the state’s widely dispersed black population into two districts would actually result in very narrow black majorities that could dilute the power of black voters.

There’s also another reason why the GOP generally opposes — and Democrats support — additional majority-Black districts. For decades, black voters overwhelmingly voted Democratic. Adding black-majority districts could boost the party’s representation in the House.

“(Republicans) want to use the Voting Rights Act to the extent that it helps all African-Americans in a 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’re taking away from the Republicans.”

The way Robinson sees it, though, it’s not about more Democratic seats and fewer Republican seats. These are the fundamental rights that Black people have fought too long and hard to let slip away.

“This is 2022. I thought that once we got over those initial hurdles in the ’60s, things would really move forward and we would be treated as normal Americans,” Robinson said. “But we’re not.”

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