The law, passed in 1965, was designed in part to prevent white lawmakers from weakening the voting strength of minorities with the deft drawing of district lines. More than a dozen states, including Louisiana, are required because of their history of discrimination to clear their redistricting plans with Justice.
But some lawmakers in those states, many of which have Republican majorities, say they do not trust the Obama administration to fairly assess their maps. This is the first time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act that a Democratic administration has been in the White House following a decennial census, when state lawmakers redraw local, state and congressional boundaries.
“We have not had to do this from a political standpoint with a Democrat in the Department of Justice,” said Louisiana Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R), who represents the Southern Hills area of Shreveport, where the objections to the Louisiana map emerged. “My concern is less with a racial motivation than it is with a political party motivation.”
A decision by Justice in the coming weeks to side with the state or with civil rights activists opposed to Louisiana’s map will signal how far the administration might go to protect minority rights in reviewing plans from other states that must get clearance, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Justice Department officials say their decisions will be made based on the law and facts, not politics.
“The Department’s career attorneys make decisions based on fact-intensive reviews, and not based on political considerations,” Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for the department’s civil rights division, said in a statement. “Our attorneys use the same standards that would be applied by the court.”
The debate comes at a time when some legal scholars and political leaders are arguing that federal oversight of redistricting may no longer be necessary, now that the country has a black president and anti-discrimination laws governing elections are commonplace.
Civil rights enforcement has been a major priority for the Obama Justice Department and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., a former civil rights lawyer who has vowed to make the civil rights division his agency’s “crown jewel.’’
But some civil rights groups say there are signs that the department may not necessarily be on their side. They point to Georgia, where Justice officials allowed lawmakers to pass a stringent new law requiring proof of citizenship to vote, over the objections of minority rights advocates. They say government lawyers were worried the fight would expand into an all-out challenge to the Voting Rights Act.