For Letetia Jackson, voting is as important as drinking water or breathing. She would like to thank her mother for cultivating this belief.
When Jackson was a girl in Alabama in the late 1960s, she always accompanied her mother to the polls. During these trips, her mother would make clear the sanctity of the franchise. Why doesn’t she? Just a few years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was designed to ban racial discrimination in voting — to ensure greater equality for black Americans like Jackson and his family.
“She would talk to me about how we have a responsibility to exercise our right to vote because people died Let’s have this right,” Jackson told CNN. “Even in her 90s, my mom would have wanted me to pick her up and take her to the polls. She is determined to vote. ”
Jackson, a public policy advocate, reflects on these formative experiences during an uncertain time for voting rights. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Merrill v. Milligan, an Alabama redistricting case that focused on VRA Article 2, which prohibits any vote that “causes denial or disenfranchisement” “on the basis of race.” rule. Jackson is a Merrill Lynch plaintiff in one of the most important election cases in recent years. Under the court’s ruling, Merrill could allow states more freedom to limit the political power of black and brown Americans — and reduce their access to public resources at the local level.
“It’s kind of surreal. It feels like we’re starting anew in the fight for voting rights,” Jackson said. “It’s as if we went back in time.”
Khadidah Stone, the Alabama forward’s chief field and campaign strategist and another plaintiff, echoed some of those sentiments.
“This is a pivotal moment in history that everyone should be watching,” she told CNN. “But also: Why are we here? Why are we still fighting for voting rights?”
Here’s a detailed look at how Merrill is impacting communities of color:
At Merrill, the bench is reviewing a January lower court opinion that blocked Alabama’s newly drawn congressional map because it may violate VRA Title 2.
The map includes only one area where black voters can recruit their favorite candidate, even though black Americans make up 27 percent of the state’s voting-age population.
Lawmakers were told to form a second-majority black constituency or something similar because a lower court judge determined that black voters had “fewer opportunities than other Alabamaans to elect their chosen congressional candidate.”
“This decision is a victory for black Alabama voters who have long been denied equal representation,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a January statement released by the National Redistricting Foundation. “The court’s decision reminds us that the moral arc of the universe does tip toward justice—but only when enough people come together and pull it toward justice.”
However, Alabama then asked the Supreme Court to set aside the ruling. A 5-4 majority agreed with the state’s request.
One argument made by Alabama is that the harm of VRA is that it essentializes race—that is, it awards districts to voters based on race and deepens divisions. But that claim leaves the VRA completely wrong, according to Yurij Rudensky, a senior adviser to the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, which filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs.
“The trial court (a panel of three judges nominated by two Donald Trump) found that in the relevant districts of Alabama (black belts), up to an average of about 15% of white voters willing to support also received black Voter support,” Rudensky told CNN.
Such polarized voting could distort the way political leaders treat different groups, leading to unequal political opportunities and potentially perpetuating other differences.
“VRA targets actual discrimination,” Rudensky said. “When you have this dynamic — white voters are 85-15 split with black voters’ interests — then there’s a huge incentive for politicians to take advantage of this racial polarization and make race a more A prominent feature of politics that uses race to boost voter turnout and create divisions between communities that may have shared economic or other interests. ”
In other words, it’s not VRA that increases the importance of race in public life, but the failure to identify and address areas where there are persistent racial disparities.
“I think many of the arguments in favor of keeping this map of Congress, and from some conservative perspectives in the court, are what actually makes race decisive and what actually helps bridge some of the issues that have plagued communities for decades. disagreements,” Rudensky said.
It’s hard to overstate Merrill’s stake.
“This is a very important moment,” another plaintiff, Sarah Dawdy, a student at the Southern University Law Center, told CNN. “The decision in this case may help shape black political power throughout the South.”
Notably, Alabama did not really argue that the lower court misunderstood VRA. Instead, the state asked the Supreme Court to rewrite the rules governing Title 2 claims.
Fundamentally rewriting Article 2, Rudensky said, “makes it harder, if not impossible, to find relief for voters of color and for civil rights and community groups working with districts that face discrimination in redistricting.”
In recent years, voting rights advocates have relied more on Title 2 protections as VRAs continue to suffer thousands of deaths.
Most notoriously, through Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, the high court liberated jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination from having to obtain federal approval or “pre-approval” before changing election laws out, thereby undermining Article 5 of the VRA.
In her famous dissenting opinion, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “With what has worked and continues to stop discriminatory change, removing pre-licensing is like taking It’s like throwing away your umbrella in a storm because you’re not getting wet.”
The surge in restrictive voting laws after Shelby proved her point.
Crucially, at Merrill, it’s not just the abstraction of fair representation that hangs in the balance.
“The basic logic of VRA is that political equality would more naturally address systemic inequalities in areas like education, housing, health care and employment,” Rudensky said. “And the reality is that it’s proven. When you look at places where voters of color are systematically excluded — where the legacy of discrimination is — and where you see successful VRA propositions, the economic outcomes for black communities are especially Significant improvement.”
In other words, VRA creates a pathway to middle class and economic self-sufficiency for racial groups that have long been marginalized in the United States.
Dowdy expressed similar sentiments. More specifically, she emphasized that redistricting has a direct impact on the distribution of power and public resources.
“When community members are able to elect a candidate who shares their concerns and understands their needs, that’s how real change and empowerment happens. A lot of times when you go through a predominantly Black community, our The community doesn’t look the best. That’s because we don’t always have the right people fighting for the right resources for us,” Dowdy said.
“It’s that simple,” she added.
Seasoned court observers will have a lot to analyze in the coming months. They will scrutinize oral arguments and try to find out where the different judges stand on the issue.
On Tuesday, the court’s conservative majority appeared to reject Alabama’s more extreme arguments while trying to find a way to protect the state’s congressional map.
Rudensky said that if the past few years are any guide, we are likely to see an opinion published at the end of the term, because Merrill is such an important case that it is likely to be sharply divided in court.
Tish Gotell Faulks, the legal director of the ACLU of Alabama, who is involved in the redistricting lawsuit, stressed that the key is for voters of color to have their voices heard.
“We’re still fighting the old battles,” she told CNN. “Whether black voters have an equal opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice should not be an open question.”
In some ways, Jackson thinks the moment serves as a reminder of the team’s value.
“It felt like we (Black Americans) were never really accepted as full citizens of this country,” she said. “This case reminds our young people that they have always had the right to vote, our vote Do matter. Because if our vote didn’t matter, they (the legislators) wouldn’t have worked so hard to strip that right away. ”
Or as Dowdy puts it, “It’s a reminder that we should never be too comfortable.”