The Voting Rights Act and redistricting in New York | The Empire.
The Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, and has been evolving over the years in a number of ways. Its genesis is in the civil rights struggles in the South, as you might recall, and the systemic disenfranchisement of African American voters. Today it remains a bulwark against attempts to deny voters their constitutional rights.
There are two main components of the VRA that we’re concerned with: Section 2 and 5.
Section 2 applies to everyone, everywhere, in any voting situation. It applies specifically to areas where minority groups should, because of their relative size and like-mindedness, be able to vote for a preferred candidate. Section 2 is violated when, because of a racially polarizing practice—gerrymandering that dilutes the minority vote, literacy tests, etc. — means a large, politically-cohesive minority group is denied representation through block-voting by the white majority.
“It prohibits electoral systems and practices that have a discriminatory purpose, or have a discriminatory result,” said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law voting rights project.
While Section 2 covers everyone, Section 5 applies only to specific states, counties or cities identified by the Department of Justice as having historical issues with discriminatory electoral practices. Most of the South continues to be covered under Section 5, but New York City has three boroughs—Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn—that adhere to Section 5 as well.
Whereas Section 2 is concerned with the after effects of an electoral system, Section 5 is concerned with what the law calls “retrogression.” Anything that affects voting—like redistricting—in an area subject to Section 5 has to be pre-cleared by the Department of Justice or a Federal court in DC to make sure minority voters will not, through the new plans, lose the ability to vote for a preferred candidate.
Simple example: there are currently 10 districts represented by elected officials from minority communities. If plans are drawn that will likely result in only six officials, this would likely be seen as retrogression and the Department of Justice would not pre-clear, or approve, those plans.
“In Section 5, under the affects test, what you’re looking for is whether there is back sliding,” Kengle explained. “Whether, when you compare the existing plan with the new plan, whether the new plan worsens the position with minority voters in the jurisdiction as a whole.”
Protecting New York City voters
When it comes to applying the two provisions, most of the focus in the city is on Section 5. Because we have minority candidates from minority districts elected at every level of city and statement government, Section 2 isn’t a concern. This isn’t the case for Nassau County, where local officials are being sued in Federal court for violating Section 2 when they allegedly drew districts that unfairly broke up minority communities.
The same can’t be said for Section 5 in New York City.
“When redistricting is done, the state has to be aware of the minor populations and where you can create—without doing violence to traditional districting principles—minority districts,” said Randolph McLaughlin, a professor at Pace University who is involved with the Nassau County court case.
If you look at, for example, the Congressional districts of Congressman Charles Rangel in Manhattan; José E. Serrano in the Bronx; and Yvette Clarke, Ed Towns and Nydia Velazquez (mostly) in Brooklyn, they will need to be preserved to make sure the populations in those districts are able to vote for representatives from their communities.
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