As legislation that restores a key element of the law makes its way toward a likely Senate GOP filibuster, the Justice Department is heading into the first redistricting cycle in a half century without the Voting Rights Act’s so-called preclearance requirement.
At stake is whether millions of minority voters will have their political power protected from certain racial gerrymanders in elections ranging from local school boards all the way up to US congressional seats.
The preclearance requirement mandated that states or localities with a history of racial voting discrimination get federal approval — either from the Justice Department or a court in DC — for election policy changes, including the legislative maps that are redrawn every 10 years. …
The Justice Department released guidance last week reminding
jurisdictions of their obligations to comply with the Voting Rights Act in redistricting. The law prohibits intentional discrimination in redistricting, as well as line-drawing that has the effect of diluting the votes of minorities.
While its preclearance provision is not in effect, the department can still bring proactive lawsuits against noncompliant jurisdictions under a Voting Rights Act provision known as Section 2. It can also file briefs in support of private groups that bring Section 2 cases.
A Justice Department official told reporters that the department has been preparing for the coming redistricting cycle for “some time.” It could use “public records requests or other formal requests from the department for maps, if we are not able to get them in the public sphere,” the official — whose anonymity the department requested as a condition of the call — told reporters.
Getting that detailed information about a state’s maps is a more complicated endeavor than it may seem. For instance, to analyze whether a map is Voting Rights Act-compliant, one needs to look at past election results, often at the precinct level, and not every state offers such information in a single database, according to Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for the voting rights group Common Cause.
“You would have to go to each county, and each county would give it to you in a slightly different format, and you have to figure out how that all could be put together,” Feng said