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Supreme Court ruling on Wisconsin legislative map puts voting rights advocates on high alert

Further limits on the Voting Rights Act "could in practice narrow it out of existence,” said one advocate.
Demonstrators Rally After Senate GOP Blocks Voting Bill
Demonstrators at a protest against further narrowing of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20.Eric Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

A Supreme Court order last week blocking Wisconsin's redistricting map is sparking fresh concerns among advocates that the high court may soon sound the death knell for what's left of the Voting Rights Act.

Experts warn that after gutting a provision of the landmark 1965 law that required some jurisdictions to submit election law changes to the Justice Department, the Supreme Court is now signaling it might curtail statutory language that's served as the chief federal protection for minority voters in the U.S. since then.

And they say Wednesday's Supreme Court order — unsigned and decided on an emergency request without oral arguments — was a shot across the bow for Section 2 of the voting rights law that prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in certain minority language groups.

“All of the signs point toward Section 2 being yet another death by a thousand cuts victim at the Supreme Court,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court agreed with Wisconsin Republicans who challenged the top state court's selection of a legislative map drawn by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that included a new Black majority district.

The Supreme Court said Evers’ plan embraced “the sort of uncritical majority-minority district maximization that we have expressly rejected.”

Some experts said more rulings like that one may be on the horizon.

“The Voting Rights Act — as the court had narrowed it through the years — already was becoming less potent of a tool. Now that tool may be gone altogether,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University School of Law.

He also saw the Wisconsin ruling as a sign the conservative majority on the court was ready to further dismantle the Voting Rights Act after scaling it back in 2013.

“This is a court that’s skeptical about the use of race in redistricting in American society at large and it has things it wants to say,” Li said.

But it was also the way in which the court delivered its ruling last week that frustrated advocates who spoke with NBC News.

"If [the Supreme Court] wants to upset 50, 60, 70 years of precedent, I think the least it can do is fully hear the affected parties out," said Danielle Lang, senior director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center.

The court will hear arguments later this year in a case involving whether state lawmakers should have drawn a second Black majority district in Alabama’s congressional redistricting process. In taking up the case, the court blocked a lower court order that had ruled the map could not be used in this year's election because it denied Black voters’ political clout.

“Those two decisions together paint a pretty bleak picture of where the majority may be willing to go as to the requirements of the Voting Rights Act,” said Lang.

The Alabama case comes on the heels of another Supreme Court case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, in which the court significantly limited how the provision protecting minority voters could be applied to voting rule changes.

Further limits to that provision, advocates said, could render the 1965 law useless.

“The court has sent signals that it’s going to narrow Section 2’s application in a way that may — even if it doesn’t do so precisely — could in practice narrow it out of existence,” Lang said.

She added that these cases highlight the need for federal voting rights legislation, namely the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would again require proposed changes to election rules in areas with a history of discrimination to undergo Justice Department review.

Not all advocates believe the Wisconsin ruling spells doom, though.

Deuel Ross, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is one of the groups representing Alabama voters and groups in the pending Supreme Court case, said he didn't think the Wisconsin order was "breaking new ground."

"The court didn't necessarily say you can't draw an additional majority-minority district," Ross said. "It simply remanded it back to the state Supreme Court and said, 'You could adopt the governor's maps, but what you need to do in the first instance is actually provide evidence that there's a reason for you to draw these maps.'"