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Arkansas redistricting might break the law, but my hands are tied, federal judge says

Arkansas News Headlines
Arkansas News Headlines

A Republican-drawn state House map that shrinks Black political power in Arkansas will stand for now, despite good evidence the maps violate the Voting Rights Act.

On Thursday, United States District Court Judge Lee Rudofsky acknowledged that plaintiffs might have a decent case against the new map, which all but ensures Black Arkansans will be underrepresented at the state Capitol.

From what the Court has seen thus far, there is a strong merits case that at least some of the challenged districts in the Board Plan are unlawful under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” Rudofsky wrote.

But the judge said he didn’t have the power to keep the map from going into effect because plaintiffs in the case, members of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the NAACP, are private citizens. Wording in the Voting Rights Act does not expressly allow private citizens to bring legal action to enforce the Voting Rights Act. “Only the Attorney General of the United States can bring a case like this one,” he wrote.

His court is open to Merrick Garland’s team for five days if they want to jump in, Rudofsky said in his 42-page ruling explaining why he did not grant an injunction to prevent the map from going into effect.

Rudofsky’s ruling ignores decades of precedent of private individuals using the Voting Rights Act to protect their access to the ballot, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union said.

“Arkansas has a history of official voting-related discrimination on the basis of race, and this new map limits Black voting strength. The court held that there is a strong case that some of the challenged districts currently in the board plan are unlawful under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, but that no one but the federal government can now sue for violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Arkansas ACLU Executive Director Holly Dickson explained.

Jonathan Topaz, one of the ACLU attorneys who argued the case, said that in the Voting Rights Act’s 50-year history, no court has ever questioned whether private individuals could use this law as a tool to secure their voting rights.

In his opinion, Rudofsky highlighted what he called “the nub” of the case: While Arkansas is 16.5% Black, only 11 of the state’s 100 House districts include a majority of Black voters. He wrote that he thinks the Voting Rights Act is a force for good, and that cases like the one before him are important to pursue.

Attorneys with the ACLU presented copious evidence on the plaintiffs’ behalf that the redistricting process, controlled start-to-finish by Republicans, failed to allow Black voters their lawful share of power at the ballot box.

Attorney Bryan Sells noted that Arkansas gained nearly 30,000 Black people since the last redistricting process, and lost 110,000 white people. But instead of reallocating political power based on changing demographics, the new map cut the number of House districts where Black voters make up the majority.

Plaintiffs offered up an alternative that created 16 Black majority districts while still meeting all the other criteria as well as or better than the drawers of the disputed map.

That map was adopted in November by the defendants in this case, the all-white, all-Republican Board of Apportionment consisting of Governor Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston.

Rutledge had this to say: “I am extremely pleased with the district court’s decision effectively dismissing the plaintiffs’ frivolous request to order new House district maps for the 2022 election. Arkansans can now move forward with choosing their elected representatives.” Her statement didn’t acknowledge the Black vote dilution inherent in the adopted map, or the possibility that this case isn’t dead yet.

When asked whether they planned to swoop in, the public affairs office for the U.S. Department of Justice said they’re not making any comments at this time.



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