Fight Over Voting Rights Reignites

Changes to voting laws have been gaining steam ever since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with Allison Riggs, attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice about what the current fight looks like.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Just ahead, the weekly protests in North Carolina known as Moral Mondays may be coming to an end. We'll speak with the main organizer, Reverend William Barber, about where the movement goes from here.

First though, we want to continue this examination of voting rights. Several states, including Alaska, North Carolina, South Carolina, many may face Justice Department scrutiny of new voting law changes. And civil rights groups say they'll also step up their efforts to protect voting rights. Joining us now to talk about that is Allison Riggs, she's a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Allison, welcome to the program.

ALLISON RIGGS: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: Allison, you heard the comments from former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales just a moment ago?

RIGGS: Yes.

HEADLEE: His view, as you heard, is that the Supreme Court decision was correct but - and it would be great if Congress would take action, but it looks like voting rights is going to be battled out in the courtrooms. What do you think about that?

RIGGS: I think that's right, and I think Justice Ginsburg recently commented in the media that she was not surprised that we've seen a rush of new voting laws that will have a negative impact on voters of color following the Shelby decision. So groups like my organization and others across the South, and across the country, are prepared to step up the fight. And we hope the Department of Justice will get behind us.

HEADLEE: Well, if he is right and you're right, you're going to be very busy. You've litigated some redistricting cases on behalf of the NAACP in Texas. What's the substance of your challenge to the redistricting laws?

RIGGS: The redistricting plans enacted in 2011 were both - violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and were enacted with an intent to discriminate in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. A three-judge panel in San Antonio made some temporary adjustments to those plans, because Texas never obtained preclearance. But the United States Supreme Court directed them to be very deferential to Texas's enacted plans, which a federal court later found were just rife with intent to discriminate.

So Texas just adopted those interim plans as their permanent plans, but we think they're still marked by Section 2 violations and an intent to discriminate. So we have moved that court to allow us to amend our complaints, challenge the newly enacted plans, the court's interim plans, and to raise a claim for relief, bail-in, under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act.

HEADLEE: I mean, when a legislature sits down to just redraw a map on where people will vote, how do you prove that they're doing that with an intent to discriminate by race?

RIGGS: Well, there was just a plethora of evidence in Texas. If you look at the congressional districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, this is an area of Texas where the Latino and African-American population growth has been explosive over the last decade. And what they did is, if you look at the districts, carefully carved apart these minority populations in order to make them a minority in each district - it's called cracking - one of these districts we refer to in the litigation as the lightning bolt.

It's a northern-based district that reaches down and grabs out just enough Latino population out of the region so that Latino voters couldn't control the outcome in any district. That's one thing. There are emails that indicate Texas was looking to make some of these districts look like they were Latino districts, but not really perform that way.

There were intentional - in the African-American Congress person's districts, the district lines carefully carved out economic engines, historic black communities, the district offices and homes of the Congress people - and the D.C. court found all of that as strong evidence of an intent to discriminate.

HEADLEE: And yet, let me just ask you, what kind of - what other kind of enforcement tools should the DOJ have? In other words, basically what the Supreme Court did was say, you can't profile certain states and say that they have to get preclearance because of their history of discrimination. But aren't all the other enforcement tools still in place?

RIGGS: They are and, you know, former Attorney General Gonzales acknowledged that while there are those others tools, Section 3 and Section 2, they're much more difficult to use. And they require, you know, generally waiting 'till a law passes and we start to see the negative effect of it.

So absolutely, the Department of Justice should even more aggressively enforce Section 2 and seek bail-in under Section 3. But the reality is is that voters of color are going to suffer in the meantime.

HEADLEE: How much longer will we have to worry about this as a nation? We saw record numbers of blacks voting in the last presidential election - at least, in fact, they outnumbered whites, recent studies have shown. And we also have seen demographic shifts that show our minorities are soon going to be our majorities, if they're not in many areas. Are we reaching a period of time where the Voting Rights Act will not be needed to protect the voting rights of blacks and Latinos and other minorities?

RIGGS: I'm hopeful it'll be in my lifetime, but we're not there yet. If you look back historically, the 15th Amendment was in place for a hundred years before the Voting Rights Act was enacted, and that was enacted in order to truly give life to the protections of the 15th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act has only been around for 50 years before...

HEADLEE: ...I should just say, the 15th Amendment is part of the Constitution that prohibits governments from denying a citizen the right to vote, just to be clear.

RIGGS: ...Right - yes, I'm sorry. And so, you know, that was in place for a hundred years and jurisdictions didn't respect that. The Voting Rights Act has made progress in the last 50 years; it's been stop-and-go sometimes. I don't disagree that we are making progress, but I think Congress in 2006, when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, realized that over time we see the nature of the discrimination changing.

In 1965, we had low registration rates amongst voters of color. And now we're seeing what Congress called the second-generation of discriminatory actions taken by certain jurisdictions. Again, I don't think it's, you know, 200 years away, but it's not here yet. And if we give up, if we stop actively seeking to ensure voters of color are fully able to participate in the political process now, we're not going to keep moving to that progress, we're going to backslide.

HEADLEE: So what kind of action would - if ideally, would you hope to get from Congress, if it is very difficult right now to enforce the Voting Rights Act through the court system, what kind of thing could Congress do to amend that?

RIGGS: Well, as former Attorney General Gonzales said, that the first thing is to come up with a new coverage formula under Section 4. But I agree that the political realities make that difficult. I think Congress could amend Section 3, the bail-in statute, to make it easier to apply. Right now it's been only used in limited circumstances, which in part, I think, lends credibility to the rationality of the coverage formula that the Supreme Court struck down, but that's a side point.

They could amend Section 3 to make it easier to bail-in, and no one should have any problem with federal oversight of a jurisdiction that is behaving poorly. So if Congress amends Section 3, we can be more aggressive in bailing in jurisdictions that are disrespecting the right of voters of color to participate in the political process.

HEADLEE: Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, we've been talking a lot about Texas and the national picture. We're about to talk about the fight over voter ID laws, among other things, in North Carolina. What other states do you see as the real battleground for voting rights? For the DOJ to test what their enforcement power is now?

RIGGS: I think it's Texas and North Carolina. I've said repeatedly that North Carolina is going to be ground zero for a fight over the right of all voters to participate in the political process. The day the Shelby decision was issued, leaders in our state legislature announced that they were going ahead with plans to cut early voting, repeal same-day registration, which allows voters during early voting to register to vote and to cast their vote at the same time.

What they - they kept that promise and enacted just last week a sweeping elections omnibus bill that in addition to a voter ID requirement, which we expected, also cut early voting, repealed same-day, repealed out-of-precinct voting, which is also going to have a disproportionate negative impact on voters of color. But they did a host of other things that undermine campaign finance progress, things that are going to make it harder for everyone to cast their ballot easily on Election Day. It's really sweeping.

HEADLEE: That was Allison Riggs, voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. She's ending there by talking about North Carolina, which we will talk more about in just a moment. She joined us from a studio there in Raleigh. Thank you so much, Allison.

RIGGS: Thank you so much.

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