State Rep. Stacey Abrams serves as the Georgia House Minority Leader.
Across the state, legislative maps are drawn to split voters along artificial lines to isolate them by race. Legislators see their districts disappear, themselves the target of racial gerrymandering. Citizens rise up in protest and demand the right to elect the candidate of their choice, but the ruling party ignores them. Racial groups are identified and segregated; their leadership eliminated. It is the way of the South. Only this isn’t 1964, the year before the signing of the Voting Rights Act. This is Georgia in 2011.
But this time, the legislators at risk are white men and women who have had the temerity to represent majority African-American districts, and Latino legislators who spoke up for their growing Hispanic population. In crossover districts, where whites and blacks have worked together for decades to build multi-racial voting coalitions, the new district maps devised by the Republicanmajority have slashed through those ties with speed and precision. If the maps proposed by the GOP in Georgia stand, nearly half of the white Democratic state representatives could be removed from office in one election cycle. Call it the “race card”—in reverse.
Reapportionment is a dangerous business. Once every 10 years, the naked ambition of political parties wars with the dwindling hope of voters that this time their voices will be heard. In the South, the voting lines traditionally aimed for specific targets—racial discrimination that purged minorities, diminishing their numbers and political power. If a legislator had the poor fortune to be of the wrong race, that district would disappear for a decade or more. The voters who relied on you would find themselves isolated and polarized, the victims of racial gerrymandering.
For most of the nation, the battle lines are drawn by partisan leaders who search for the sinuous lines that will connect like-minded voters to one another and disadvantage those who have shown a preference for the other side. That, as they say, is Politics 101.
But for a handful of states, the stakes are higher. Below the Mason-Dixon Line and scattered across the country, a legacy of poll taxes and literacy tests required a special remedy—Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act has a simple goal—integrate the voting of minorities into the fabric of our democracy. For any state held to its obligations, no changes can be made to election laws without pre-clearance by the Justice Department. In the last decade, the minority population across the South has increased, and by any measure, the Voting Rights Act has been the engine of racial progress.