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Louisiana redistricting case seen as crucial test of Voting Rights Act

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

In a racially mixed corner of Shreveport, La., a small group of white voters protested loudly this year that they did not want to be part of a majority black district when the legislature redrew the state’s political boundaries. The Republican-led statehouse complied, drawing a line around the community to accommodate them.

That line is at the heart of a case before the Justice Department that is seen as a critical test of how the Obama administration will interpret the controversial Voting Rights Act as it rules on a new wave of redistricting plans.

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.”

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