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Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on his efforts to counter gerrymandering

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

House Speaker Mike Johnson may see his state's congressional delegation gain a Democrat next year. That's because Louisiana has drawn a new legislative map after a legal battle led by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder leads that organization and joins us now. Good morning.

ERIC HOLDER: Good morning. How are you?

RASCOE: I'm great. Thank you so much for joining us. Lawmakers in Baton Rouge drew a congressional map in 2022 that included only one majority-Black district. You sued, saying that violates the Voting Rights Act. Very similar story in Alabama as, well. How many more states are you eyeing, and which ones?

HOLDER: Well, we have cases that are filed - that was filed, certainly, in Alabama. That was our case that went before the Supreme Court - Louisiana, South Carolina, the case in Florida, this case in Georgia, as well. We have other litigation based on other bases in other parts of the country as well.

RASCOE: You oppose gerrymandering. Does that mean that you would take on a place like Illinois, which is gerrymandered in favor of Democrats?

HOLDER: Yeah. I mean, I've spoken out against gerrymandering done by either party. I took on Democrats in New Jersey. But I think if you compare the gerrymandering done by Democrats as opposed to gerrymandering done by Republicans, you're actually comparing apples to oranges or a really small apple to a very large apple. The extent of gerrymandering that we've seen done by Republicans or attempted to be done by Republicans in this last cycle was pretty extreme. By contrast, looking at what has happened in this cycle, The New York Times said that we had the fairest redistricting in the last 40 years.

RASCOE: You said you took on Democrats in New Jersey. Would you file a lawsuit in Illinois? Do you think that would be worth filing a lawsuit over the gerrymandering in that state?

HOLDER: Yeah. I mean, the map that was drawn in Illinois is not necessarily one that I would have drawn, and yet it takes into account the fact that Illinois is more urban than it was 10 years or so ago, that there was the need to create a district that reflected the increased number of Hispanics in Illinois. And so, yeah, I would have not drawn the map exactly - precisely as it was drawn in Illinois. But I'm not at all certain that that would be something that would be worthy of a lawsuit, as opposed to what we saw in Louisiana and in Alabama, where it was clear that there were violations of the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act says that in an atmosphere and environment where you have racially polarized voting, as you certainly do in Alabama and in Louisiana, there has to be an opportunity for minority communities to express themselves politically. And so that would mean that you had to have at least two Black opportunity districts, both in Alabama and in Louisiana. Each state had only one. We brought the case in Alabama. A very conservative Supreme Court sided with us - had the impact of making the legislature in Louisiana ultimately do the right thing.

RASCOE: Well, what do you think about that? - because the Voting Rights Act, you know, obviously passed to remove legal barriers to Black people voting. And discriminatory voting practices in many Southern states was widely said to be gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 when you were AG, and yet you have been winning court cases based on Voting Rights Act violations. So does that mean that the Voting Rights Act is alive and well, or do you think that it really has been gutted in many ways?

HOLDER: Well, I'd say that the Voting Rights Act is alive but is not well. As a result of the Shelby County decision, we have seen polling places close - about 1,700 polling places close. The disproportionate number of those happened in communities of color.

We have also seen a number of other ways in which people have been negatively impacted - the introduction of these unnecessary photo ID laws in order to have - to be able to cast a vote. I'm a person who says, yeah, you should prove that you are who you are when you want to cast a ballot, but these very prescriptive measures taken by various states - Texas, other states around the country with these photo ID laws - has had a negative impact on the ability of young people, people of color, people who are perceived to be Democrats. It has made it more difficult for them to vote.

All of those things would have been prevented had the Shelby County case not been decided, had the Voting Rights Act been in full strength. So the Voting Rights Act is still a tool that we can use but not to the degree that we could before the 2013 Shelby County case.

RASCOE: Is there a legislative fix to gerrymandering? - not just doing it through the Voting Rights Act. But is there a legislative fix to gerrymandering, the practice as a whole?

HOLDER: Yeah, there are fixes to this. And this problem of gerrymandering is not only racial in nature, though that is extremely pernicious. It is also partisan in nature. And the Supreme Court in the Rucho case said that you can't bring these partisan gerrymandering cases in federal courts. And so we have brought partisan gerrymandering cases, fighting partisan gerrymandering, in the state court systems and have been successful there, as well.

There were bills before Congress in the last session that would have outlawed gerrymandering - that is, partisan gerrymandering, racial gerrymandering - in all federal elections. Congress has that ability. And that's certainly something that I hope in the new Congress will be taken up as a first measure. It will probably mean having to do something with the filibuster in the Senate. But a democracy carve-out of the filibuster to allow effective federal legislation to outlaw partisan and racial gerrymandering, I think, is good for our democracy. In the meantime, we have to try to impose those measures at the state level. In addition, I think we also stand very strongly for the creation of these independent commissions to draw the lines, as opposed to having partisan legislatures do the redistricting process. When you see the existence of these independent commissions, you see the best results.

RASCOE: That's former Attorney General Eric Holder. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOLDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.