A top North Dakota Republican said there would be “no way” for lawmakers to craft new legislative districts by a court-imposed Friday deadline, marking the third time this year that a GOP-led state has ignored a court order to draw maps that comply with the Voting Rights Act.
Earlier this year, after the Supreme Court upheld a key part of the VRA, a panel of three federal judges directed Alabama to create a new congressional district with a Black majority so that Black voters could elect their candidate of choice. However, Republican legislators passed a new map without an additional Black-majority district, leading the judges to reject that plan and impose a compliant one themselves.
And this month, Georgia Republicans responded with similar defiance after a federal court struck down their congressional and legislative maps on the same grounds and issued instructions to create new Black-majority districts. The judge also warned lawmakers against dismantling diverse districts that lack a Black majority but have nonetheless elected Black voters’ preferred candidates. Republicans, however, did exactly that.
The North Dakota case involves the same provision of the VRA, which prohibits states from thwarting minority representation by carving up cohesive minority populations and divvying them up between districts. Native voters brought a suit alleging that lawmakers had done just that when drawing up boundaries for the state legislature, and last month, a federal judge agreed.
Plaintiffs argued that Native voters were unable to elect their preferred candidates—very likely to be Native Democrats—because the legislature had improperly placed two reservations, Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake, in separate districts. As a result, both the 9th and 15th districts elected white Republicans to the state Senate last year. U.S. District Judge Peter Welte ordered the state to revamp the districts, which would likely involve uniting the two reservations.
Republicans asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put Welte’s ruling on hold, but the appeals court declined their request. However, GOP lawmakers are still pursuing a broader appeal, and they aren’t just refusing to remedy their problematic maps. Their appeal relies on a radical legal argument that would effectively destroy the VRA by rendering it almost entirely unenforceable—an argument that most Republican-led states have voiced support for, including Georgia.
These Republicans claim that private individuals cannot sue to enforce the VRA, saying that only the U.S. Department of Justice can do so. However, the overwhelming majority of VRA lawsuits have been brought by private plaintiffs, including voters and civil rights organizations. If only the federal government could pursue such claims, the number of cases would dwindle even under a Democratic president—and a Republican president could refuse to enforce the law at all.
Recently, in a separate redistricting lawsuit involving Arkansas, a three-judge panel on the 8th Circuit ruled that private parties can’t sue to enforce the VRA. The plaintiffs in that case are asking the full 8th Circuit to overrule that determination, and the Supreme Court may eventually rule on the matter.
For decades, the Supreme Court has ruled on VRA litigation involving private parties, including the recent Alabama case. However, given how often the Supreme Court’s far-right majority has sought to undermine the VRA in other cases, little can be taken for granted—and that’s exactly what North Dakota Republicans are counting on.
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