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It's not good when voting rights cases make it to the Supreme court, author says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Supreme Court heard opening arguments this week in a case that could further erode the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation was one of the great achievements of the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s, and it sought to eliminate racial discrimination against minority voters. Central to the case before the Supreme Court is whether the redrawing of congressional districts in Alabama is diluting the voting power of Black voters, who make up more than a quarter of that state's population. We've called up Ari Berman to talk about this. He's a senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine and author of the book, "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America." Ari, thanks so much for being with us.

ARI BERMAN: Thanks so much for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: You have said that it's never a good thing when voting rights cases make it to the Supreme Court. Explain that.

BERMAN: Well, there's been a pretty consistent trend from this Supreme Court over the past decade in narrowing voting rights and in attacking the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act in a decision in 2013. Eight years later, they further weakened the Voting Rights Act, making it harder to challenge potentially discriminatory voting laws. And now they're hearing a third case that could lead the court to even further weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

MARTIN: And what would the repercussions of that be? What would the immediate future look like if the Supreme Court decides in favor of Alabama in the case it's hearing?

BERMAN: If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Alabama, it's likely to have a chilling effect on representation for communities of color. It's going to embolden states to take steps to either refuse to draw new districts for minority lawmakers at a time when there is massive demographic changes in the country, or it could embolden lawmakers to actually dismantle existing majority-minority districts that elect Black, Latino or Asian American lawmakers. So I think the general consensus among voting rights experts is that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Alabama, it's going to lead to fewer minority legislators being elected, not more.

MARTIN: What do you think is important for Americans to remember about the voting landscape prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

BERMAN: I think it's really important for Americans to remember that so many people were disenfranchised in America, particularly Black Americans. There were counties in Alabama where 80% of residents were Black, but there wasn't a single Black registered voter before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In the entire state of Mississippi, only 6% of African Americans were registered to vote. And it's easy to forget that this was just 55 years ago in this country that there were essentially entire swaths of people, an entire region of the country, that could not vote.

MARTIN: So explain what we're looking at in the case of Alabama by example of, say, the city of Montgomery, which is part of three different congressional districts. Am I right on that?

BERMAN: Exactly. So what Alabama has done is they've basically split up Black communities so that there's only one congressional district out of seven where Black voters can elect a candidate of their choice, even though African Americans are more than a quarter of Alabama's population. And so civil rights groups sued in the latest redistricting cycle. They said that Black voters were cohesive enough to draw a second majority Black district in the state. They won before the lower courts, but then the Supreme Court intervened and blocked that plan. And so the situation right now in Alabama is there's a large Black population, but they're underrepresented, and their votes are diluted to give white Republicans a political advantage.

MARTIN: And baked into this is the assumption, I suppose, that Black voters are not voting for the same candidates that white voters are, and vice versa?

BERMAN: Exactly. Unfortunately, in states like Alabama, voting is still very racially polarized. You go back to 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama was on the ballot. He only got about 10% of the white vote in states like Alabama and Mississippi. So we'd like to think that 50-plus years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we've moved beyond that kind of racial polarization in voting. But unfortunately, many places, particularly in the South, remain very racially polarized. And really, the only way that you can elect a Black candidate is if there's a Black majority or close to it in places like Alabama.

MARTIN: So Republicans in the state reject the characterization that the redrawing of the districts was racially based at all. Our colleague Michel Martin went to Alabama, and she interviewed a whole lot of people involved in the case, including Republican State Senator Jim McClendon. He's one of the chairs of the state's redistricting commission. And I want to play a little bit of tape from what he told her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JIM MCCLENDON: When we drew the districts, we drew the districts race-blind. In other words, as our computer - as the lines moved on the screen, the numbers change. We didn't have race up there because we couldn't. You're not supposed to use race. Voting Rights Act will tell you very clearly, you can't use race in doing this. Then the three-judge panel comes along and says, you need to redraw these. You need to draw two districts that are majority African American districts or two that are very close to that, which means you've got to use race.

MARTIN: How do you respond to that?

BERMAN: Well, that really is the central debate in this case, is should the Voting Rights Act be a race-blind statute? That's what Republicans and Conservatives in other states are calling for. But what defenders of the Voting Rights Act will say is that it's impossible for the Voting Rights Act to be a race-blind statute because the Voting Rights Act was meant to consider race. It was meant to consider race as a way to stop decades of racial discrimination in voting. And you can't equalize political power. You can't create new opportunities for historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities unless you at least take race into account. And we'd all love to believe that we live in a race-blind society, but unfortunately, we don't. And as long as there remains this underrepresentation, these historic and socioeconomic disparities, race is going to have to be taken into account. And that was a very sharp debate that came before the Supreme Court when they heard the case this week.

MARTIN: Ari Berman, senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine and author of the book "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights in America," we so appreciate your time.

BERMAN: Thanks so much for having me, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD BUCKNER'S "SURROUNDED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.