High court decision could impact state voting districts

The Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. on The Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 2012. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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The U.S. Supreme Court decision to void a key provision of the Voting Rights Act could have an impact on redistricting and the protection of "minority-majority" voting districts in New York, an expert said Tuesday.

The court struck down a provision that requires some southern states and certain counties around the nation to get federal approval for proposed changes. Enacted in 1965, the law had been seen as necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting. Three counties in New York State were subject to the "pre-clearance" provision: Bronx, Kings (Brooklyn) and New York (Manhattan).

The counties had to get federal sign off on anything from changing a polling place to new district maps for Congress, state legislature and New York City Council, according to Jeffrey M. Wice, a Democratic attorney who has worked on redistricting in New York for more than three decades.

For instance, if, say, seven of 10 State Assembly districts in Brooklyn were "minority-majority" (i.e., blacks were the majority in seven districts), a new redistricting plan couldn't lower that to five or six and expect to get "pre-clearance" from the federal government, he said.

"In plain language, it meant that any new redistricting plan cannot leave minorities worse off than under a previous plan," Wice said. "It was a shield against government doing the wrong thing."

Now, if lawmakers approved a lower number minority-majority districts, an individual or an organization would have to sue to overturn the decision -- an action that might not be resolved until years after the election, Wice said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the court's decision "deeply troubling." Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said it was a "huge setback for the progress America has made toward guaranteeing all Americans the right to participate in fair elections."

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who was part of a multistate coalition that filed legal briefs in favor of keeping the pre-clearance provision, urged Congress to adopt new provisions to ensure minority voting rights aren't diminished.

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