WASHINGTON -- In a signal that it intends to enforce the Voting Rights Act with new vigor, the Justice Department has blocked legislative redistricting plans devised by the states of Mississippi and Louisiana on the ground that they discriminate against blacks.
Assistant Attorney General John R. Dunne yesterday expressed sweeping objections to the redistricting plans for the Mississippi state Senate and House of Representatives. On Friday, he objected to a plan for the Louisiana state Senate.
All 50 states are drawing up redistricting plans based on the results of the 1990 census, with many seats in Congress and state legislatures at stake.
Nine states with a history of discrimination, including Mississippi and Louisiana, and portions of seven other states must obtain advance approval from the Justice Department before they can make any change in voting laws or election procedures.
The objections to the Mississippi and Louisiana plans represent the first decisions by the Justice Department on plans drawn on the basis of the 1990 census results.
They set an important precedent suggesting that the Bush administration will carefully examine redistricting plans for compliance with the voting rights law.
The administration has taken a cautious approach to enforcement of many civil rights laws. But Dunne, a former New York state senator from Garden City, N.Y., has singled out voting rights for special emphasis. In the last nine years, Congress and the Supreme Court have made it easier for minority groups to prove violations of the Voting Rights Act.
In other parts of the country, Republicans have sometimes worked with blacks and Hispanic-Americans to increase the minority population of certain urban districts, on the assumption that Republicans would then have a greater chance of winning in adjoining suburban districts.
But that strategy appears to be irrelevant in Mississippi, a rural state where the Republican Party is not a significant force in the state Legislature.
The ruling yesterday in the Mississippi case throws a big question mark over elections to the state Legislature scheduled for this fall. The state's next step is unclear.