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Legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act continue into the new year

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's been a lot of activity around the landmark Voting Rights Act, with the Supreme Court weighing in and several other legal fights being waged in lower courts. What's most at stake is Section 2 of the law, which bans racial discrimination in the elections process. Recently, it's been used to challenge maps of congressional districts drawn up by Republican state legislatures that allegedly dilute the power of Black voters. In some cases, Republicans are adopting novel legal arguments that civil rights groups warn could undermine the power of the law. Joining us to break all of this down is NPR's voting rights correspondent, Hansi Lo Wang. Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Let's start with the Supreme Court decision in June that struck down a redistricting map created by the Alabama State Legislature. A number of legal experts thought this was surprising. Like, why did they think that?

WANG: Well, because this was coming from a Supreme Court with a conservative majority that for the past decade has been weakening the Voting Rights Act's protections for voters of color. You know, back in 2013, we saw conservative Chief Justice John Roberts write a major decision that got rid of a key part of the Voting Rights Act. But in this Alabama case, Roberts joined conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the court's three liberal justices, and they found that Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature approved a map that likely diluted the collective power of Black voters in the state. Republican state officials tried to raise an argument that goes against decades of precedent. They argued that race should not be taken into account when voting maps are drawn, unless there's evidence of intentional discrimination. But that court majority disagreed and kept in place Section 2 protections in redistricting.

RASCOE: So that's at the highest level. But you've had your eye on the lower court decisions also. So what's been going on there?

WANG: Well, in voting rights cases in Louisiana and Georgia, lower federal courts have also ruled that maps approved by Republican-controlled legislatures are not in line with Section 2 because they didn't draw enough districts where Black voters have a realistic opportunity to like their preferred candidates. And by the way, because of how racially polarized voting is in these states, those districts are likely to elect Democrats. And what we've seen is Republican officials appealing these rulings. And their most recent strategy is citing this extraordinary voting rights case out of Arkansas. A federal judge, Lee Rudofsky, a Trump appointee, threw out this lawsuit over Arkansas' state legislative map because it was filed by private groups. This judge's ruling said the words of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act say that the head of the Justice Department can bring lawsuits, but the words do not explicitly say that private groups can sue.

RASCOE: And why is this question of who can challenge these maps so important?

WANG: Because the reality is that the majority of lawsuits that are seeking to get Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act enforced, including that Alabama case that the Supreme Court ruled on - they are brought not by the Justice Department but by private groups and individuals. You know, very often, the Justice Department just does not have the resources or, depending on the presidential administration, may not have the support to sue. Here's Barry Jefferson, the president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, which is the leading private group that brought this Arkansas lawsuit.

BARRY JEFFERSON: This issue is so important 'cause for decades, individuals had a right to stand up and say, hey, this is wrong. You can take it to the court of law. And it was stopped because of a judge.

RASCOE: So how big of a deal is this ruling by the federal judge in Arkansas?

WANG: Well, the bigger deal is that after civil rights groups appealed the judge's ruling, a panel of judges on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the ruling. And now Republican state officials in Louisiana, Georgia and North Dakota have been citing this 8th Circuit panel's ruling to try to keep in place maps that lower courts have found discriminate against voters of color. So this is now the latest front in the fight over this landmark law from the civil rights movement.

And I should note two of the Supreme Court's conservative justices who voted for keeping Alabama's now struck-down map - I'm talking about Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas - they have signaled they're open to hearing a case that gets at this issue, whether private groups can sue under Section 2 or if only the head of the Justice Department can.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thank you so much for joining us.

WANG: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.