A group backed by Democratic former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wants one new majority-black congressional district in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana in time for the 2020 general elections, according to new federal lawsuits filed Wednesday in each state.
The legal challenges, which are supported by Holder's National Redistricting Foundation, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee — a political action committee chaired by Holder — claim the new majority-minority districts are needed because each state’s current electoral maps violate the federal Voting Rights Act by depriving black voters of the ability to elect representatives of their choice.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Louisiana Secretary of State R. Kyle Ardoin and Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill are defendants in the filings, which note each state’s history of racially polarized voting and disenfranchisement of black voters.
"You can't ignore the progress we've made over the past half century, but there's no doubt that in too many places, African Americans are still not afforded an equal opportunity to participate in our electoral process,” Holder told McClatchy.
The lawsuits are the latest move by Holder and Democrats to undo the political advantage that they say GOP lawmakers obtained by crafting favorable state legislative and congressional districts in 2011 based on 2010 Census data.
The GOP’s national redistricting effort, known as “Operation REDMAP,” helped Republicans capture more seats in Congress and in state legislative races in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
The party that controls the statehouse also controls the redistricting process and typically draws political districts with safe majorities of their likely voters.
But minority-party voters are often spread strategically into several districts to dilute their influence or clustered into a few districts, which can limit their impact. Both tactics, known as “cracking” and “packing” allow the party in power to hold on to more seats.
The new lawsuits, each filed on behalf of more than a dozen black plaintiffs, claim each state’s 2011 congressional redistricting plans weakened black voting strength by either “packing” them into one district or “cracking” black voters into several districts.
If true, that would violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act which prohibits any “standard, practice or procedure,” such as redistricting, that would “deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
The law allows states and local governments to draw majority-minority political districts where racial minorities make up a majority of the voting population.
Holder said his group doesn’t want the new congressional districts for partisan advantage, but rather to “inject fairness into the system."
“I'm not here to gerrymander for Democrats,” Holder said. “I don't want to repeat what the Republicans did in 2011. All we want to have is fairness. Because if we have lines that are fairly drawn, Democrats and progressives will be just fine."
In an e-mail statement, Matt Walter, President of the Republican State Leadership Committee, called the lawsuits "politically motivated litigation aimed at taking away the constitutional authority of elected state legislators to draw district lines."
"The cynical lawsuits filed today by Holder and the Democrats are crass attempts to rally the left-wing base and to elect more Democrats through litigation, instead of running winning campaigns on policies and ideas that voters actually want," Walter wrote.
The redistricting foundation, which is backed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has filed a series of actions against Republican officials. In February, the group sued Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin for not holding two special elections. And in April, they sued the Trump administration over its plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. In
They also plan to challenge questionable electoral maps to be created in 2021 based on data from the 2020 Census.
In addition, the Democratic redistricting committee is focusing on states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia where electoral maps have provided 16 to 17 extra congressional seats for Republicans since 2010, according to a 2017 Brennan Center report.
The Alabama lawsuit claims that in 2011, state GOP lawmakers moved black voters from a mostly-white district into the 7th Congressional District, already a majority-minority district that's home to nearly one-third of Alabama’s black population. Rather than confine black voting power to that district, the suit claims lawmakers should have created another majority-minority district.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill expressed surprise at being named in the suit, saying his office only oversees political boundaries passed by the state.
A former member of the state legislature who voted for the redistricting plan adopted after the 2010 Census, Merrill said the electoral maps were "fairly constructed single member districts to best represent the people of the state."
But in January 2017, a federal court ordered state lawmakers to redraw nine state House districts and three Senate districts after Alabama Democrats filed suit, claiming black voters had been "packed" and "stacked" under the current boundaries. The fixes required Alabama lawmakers to ultimately adjust 25 Senate districts and nearly 70 House districts.
The Georgia complaint claims that instead of creating a new majority-minority congressional district in the southeastern Georgia where black voters were numerous and geographically compact, state lawmakers moved them into three different congressional districts, which diluted their voting power.
A spokesperson for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp referred questions about the lawsuit to Attorney General Christopher Carr. Carr's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Louisiana case claims lawmakers packed black voters into one majority-minority district and split other black voters into several districts rather than creating a second majority-minority district.
In an emailed statement, Louisiana Secretary of State R. Kyle Ardoin said his office has no authority to fix "any perceived redistricting issue," but instead must manages elections based on electoral maps passed by state lawmakers.
"Another significant point to mention is that these districts received pre-clearance from the United States Department of Justice under then-Attorney General Eric Holder, who now appears to have changed his mind. I'm honestly confused by this lawsuit and the reversal of his opinion," Ardoin said .
Holder said the redistricting foundation could end up supporting other voting rights lawsuits as the 2018 mid-term elections inch closer.
“We're always looking for ways in which the foundation can use its litigation tools in order to enhance our democracy,” he said.