Constitutional Law Blog Essay

Voting Rights: The Struggle of Our Lifetime

When our nation was founded, only a minority of the new country’s people enjoyed the right to vote. Guided by the belief that more Americans participating in our democracy would make our union stronger and more just, our foremothers and fathers fought to expand voting rights to the poor, to women, and to people of color.  Those who came before us gave their lives fighting for an America where race, gender, and economic status would not keep future generations from the ballot box.  Despite setbacks along the way, we made significant progress advancing voting rights.  But our struggle is not over.  Today, voting rights face renewed attacks that threaten to reverse our hard-won progress and ultimately hijack our democracy.

Communities of color have been struggling for voting rights for generations.  After the 15th Amendment granted African-Americans the constitutional right to vote in 1870, states were faced with an expanded electorate that included large numbers of new black voters.  Some responded by passing laws imposing poll taxes, literacy tests, and property requirements as prerequisites to voting.  When those laws fell short of their democracy-inhibiting goal, violence and other forms of intimidation kept African-Americans essentially away from the ballot box for almost 100 years.  Yesteryear’s poll tax and literacy test have mutated into unneeded restrictive voter ID laws and election roll purges that target low-income and minority communities with alarming accuracy. While striking North Carolina’s voter ID law, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that the law targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.” And a Wisconsin study recently concluded that its Republican legislature’s restrictive voter ID law kept up to 23,000 voters in two reliably Democratic counties from voting in the 2016 presidential election — which was decided by just 22,748 votes.

In addition to voter ID laws, Republicans in states like Ohio and Georgia are backing attempts to purge infrequent voters from their election rolls.  This practice, which has been challenged in federal court, now has the full support of the Justice Department.  If these states prevail, this practice could spread around the country, leaving several hundred thousands, if not millions, of unsuspecting registered voters disenfranchised. And for no good reason.

As Republican legislatures maneuver to keep voters away from the polls, they are also gerrymandering districts to dilute the voting power of those who do manage to cast a ballot.  In response to changing demographics, an expanding electorate and a failing governing philosophy, unscrupulous politicians cling to power using both legal and illegal tactics.  Legislatures either “pack” African-American and minority voters into one district to reduce their influence in other districts, or “crack” voters into several districts to dilute their voting power overall.  Courts have recently overturned illegal racial gerrymanders in North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas.  Earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down two of North Carolina’s congressional districts as racial gerrymanders and ordered the state legislature to redraw its map.  In response to the order, the legislature drew a map that was just as rigged.  But this time North Carolina’s legislature rather remarkably claimed it sorted voters into districts based not on race, but on legally permissible partisan criteria such as incumbent protection and past election results.

Whether politicians are sorting voters into districts based on race or partisanship, the results are equally devastating for our democracy.  Armed with sophisticated data and mapping technologies, Republican-led state legislatures gerrymandered themselves into a majority in Congress and in state legislatures around the country in 2010.  In 2012, Democrats won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in races for the United States House of Representatives, yet Republicans gained a 234 to 201 seat advantage. In 2016, despite winning fewer than half of all votes for the House, Republicans still held an advantage of 241 to 194 House seats. In Wisconsin, the subject of the Supreme Court case on partisan gerrymandering, Republicans control 60% of the state legislature although they won less than half the votes.

This large-scale attack on voting rights through suppression and gerrymandering has led to the gridlock in Washington that enrages so many of us.  By drawing districts that create a greater fear of a primary challenge than a Democratic opponent, Republicans have turned into a party that caters to its fringe. That is why when it comes to issues on which there is broad agreement among the American people — the need for sensible gun laws, criminal justice reform, access to affordable health care — Congress ignores the will of the majority of Americans with few consequences.  And worse, when voters realize the system is rigged, they grow frustrated and stop participating in our democracy.

As Attorney General, I made advancing the cause of civil rights a priority at the Justice Department.  And when my time as Attorney General was coming to a close, I promised to “never abandon this mission” of ensuring the right to vote.  This is a promise I hold dear. And it’s the reason why I’ve dedicated my time to chairing the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (“NDRC”).  The NDRC was created to ensure that after the 2020 Census, redistricting will be done fairly so the people’s wishes are reflected in the candidates who are elected.  Elections should be decided based on who has the best ideas to unify our nation and move our country forward, not who can draw the best maps.

As I’ve traveled around the country sounding the alarm on gerrymandering and the assault on voting rights, I’ve met others who share my concern and ask how they can join this fight. There is much work to be done and several ways lawyers and activists can help.  You can support redistricting and voting rights litigation with your financial resources or by including this work in your practice.  You can also support candidates committed to our democracy who are running for positions that impact redistricting.  These races are often down ballot state races that don’t receive national attention, but winning them will have national consequences. In 2018, there are 322 state senate races that carry four-year terms, so these legislators will have a seat at the table during the 2021 redistricting cycle. We also need a new generation of voting rights activists to take up the cause of ending gerrymandering and voter suppression by speaking out and organizing.  And we need young people who refuse to be pushed out of the political process to run for state and local elected office and vote for leaders who support fair redistricting.

Of our country’s long march toward civil rights, John Lewis said, “Our struggle is a struggle to redeem the soul of America. It’s not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. It is the struggle of a lifetime, more than one lifetime.”  These are difficult times but the stakes are enormous.  Our generation must not fail when others before us have risen to the challenges of their time.  We — the people — have the power, and the responsibility, to shape the fate and future of our nation.  This is our birthright as Americans, and it is our sacred duty to those who will come after us.