STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Before we get to 2016, there are elections this year and voting rights advocates contend some states are trying to disenfranchise minority voters. What the states are doing is applying a Supreme Court ruling from last June. The Court ruled against a system that imposed rules on states with a history of discrimination. Before the Supreme Court ruled, those states had to win federal approval before making any changes into how they conducted elections. Now the states can do what they think best and if anybody doesn't like it, they have to sue. Some legal groups are now training activists to sue.
NPR's Carrie Johnson caught a recent training session in Georgia.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A few dozen lawyers and community activists shook off pouring rain from their umbrellas as they gathered on the 28th floor of an Atlanta skyscraper.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, just sign in so we know you were here.
JOHNSON: A thick fog obscured the towers along Peachtree Street, but people like Robert Adams Jr. said their purpose was clear.
ROBERT ADAMS JR.: I was invited by the president of the NAACP. I'm one of the district coordinators for Georgia. We're always in the struggle and the fight, so I'm here to get some more training. Training is always good.
JOHNSON: Laughlin McDonald, of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, has watched elections here since not long after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Last year, a divided Supreme Court gutted part of that law, throwing into chaos a system that had required Georgia and eight other states to ask for federal permission before making election changes.
McDonald, one of the lawyers teaching the session, told the audience he's noticed a difference.
LAUGHLIN MCDONALD: We know that in Georgia, it is having a negative impact in some of the jurisdictions; and one of them is Augusta-Richmond County.
JOHNSON: Before the Supreme Court ruled, the county planned to move up its elections from November to July. But the Justice Department blocked that, arguing it would depress black turnout. After the Supreme Court ruling, the county no longer had to ask for permission. So the change was made. Already, the Atlanta Journal Constitution has found African-Americans are underrepresented in local governments across the state. Gerald Hebert, of the Campaign Legal Center, says that matters.
GERALD HEBERT: At the local level, those are where decisions really get made that affect people's lives in a very fundamental way. They're the things they talk about around the kitchen table - not so much what's going on in the state legislature but, you know, the city councils and school boards and the education of their children, and where they go to school and the conditions.
JOHNSON: Hebert, one of the leaders of the training, said the Justice Department has failed to follow up with lawsuits against many of those cities and counties.
HEBERT: They have a responsibility to go out and do something about the fact that they previously found laws to be discriminatory that are now being implemented at the local level. But I haven't seen actions by DOJ, so I've been disappointed.
JOHNSON: Hebert said victims of discrimination will now have to shoulder the burden of suing. And that won't be easy. Listen to this challenge presented by longtime voting lawyer Armand Derfner.
ARMAND DERFNER: 'Cause lot of us think we remember from law school that voting is a fundamental right. We all remember that, right? Voting is a fundamental right? OK, you think so? You better go back to law school. It is not a fundamental right.
JOHNSON: Derfner reminded the crowd the right to vote is not spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, but he said voting is a fundamental right in many state constitutions. And that's where lawyers should start, Derfner said, in looking for new ways to sue to protect minority voting rights.
Not everyone at the training believes there's reason for alarm in Georgia. Bryan Tyson, a young Atlanta lawyer, said the Supreme Court majority was correct last year when it called out Congress for failing to update the Voting Rights Act.
BRYAN TYSON: Well, I haven't really seen any sort of massive resurgence of problems as a result of that. Not really any major issues that I've seen as a result.
JOHNSON: Ann Brumbaugh is a lawyer who's represented the state elections board and worked on a bipartisan rewrite of Georgia's elections code. She sees more cause for concern.
ANN BRUMBAUGH: It makes some people more willing to do reckless things, and it makes other people less willing to do necessary things.
JOHNSON: Instructors at the training session stressed that bringing, and winning, voting rights lawsuits in this new environment would be a challenge. They're planning more legal training for people in Washington and Florida later this year.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News.