North Carolina Court of Appeals judge Allison Riggs delivered this year’s Barrett Lecture, entitled “The Strengths and Limits of Democracy as a Tool to Advance Social Justice,” as part of the George Barrett Social Justice Program’s annual lecture series. Riggs previously worked for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where she specialized in voting rights.
The lecture series honors George Barrett (‘57), a civil rights attorney who fought for desegregation in Tennessee’s higher education institutions. Barrett passed away in 2014.
Riggs spoke about how policies affect democracy, the outcome of a landmark civil rights case she argued at the US Supreme Court, and how students can use their legal careers to advocate for voting rights.
Policy Can Impact Democracy
“There are times throughout our history when securing a voter rights win has not in and of itself been sufficient,” Riggs told audience members about social justice. The reason? Riggs claimed it is because policies impact democracies.
One policy Riggs addressed was gerrymandering, which she defined as “drawing district lines that are so manipulated so as to almost predict or ensure a specific political outcome.”
“Politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking their representatives,” Riggs noted about states with heavily gerrymandered districts.
She also pointed to ballot access policies as possible barriers to fair democracy.
“We allow that our legislative bodies set rules for participating in elections,” Riggs said, “but there are ways in which policies around that access to the ballot box start to distort what is the electorate that is electing representatives, and thus having the ability to push and lobby for the policies they want.”
She pointed to the impact of campaign finance policies on underrepresented communities trying to get involved in the political process.
“Low-income communities, historically disadvantaged communities, are often at a disadvantage to front the money it takes to put yourself forward as a candidate,” Riggs noted. The result, she argued, was “a class of political elites and electives who don’t actually look like the people of that democracy.”
Arguing Rucho v. Common Cause
Riggs discussed her experience arguing Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), which focused on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. A previous court case struck down a North Carolina redistricting map littered with racial gerrymandering.
“The legislature was forced to go back and draw a remedy map,” Riggs recounted. “And so the head of the House Redistricting Committee draws this map, a remedy map, and says, ‘Okay, we’re not allowed to racial gerrymander, so we’ll partisan gerrymander. We’ve got a 10-3 map – ten Republicans, three Democrats – out of our racial gerrymander. I’m going to partisan gerrymander to get the exact same result.’”
Riggs described her argument against the constitutionality of the redistricting committee’s new map, noting that computer simulations showed it would be nearly impossible for Republicans to hold ten districts without deliberate partisan gerrymandering.
“To get a delegation that reflected the statewide vote patterns of the state,” she said about elections under the redistricting plan, “it would require a huge, huge, huge political outcome that we hadn’t seen in a while.”
Riggs and Common Cause ultimately lost the case on a 5-4 vote, with the majority characterizing partisan gerrymandering as a political issue which federal courts were powerless to address. Riggs suggested that the defeat raises questions about our democracy.
“Are elected representatives – who are supposed to be the most politically accountable to us – is this how it is working?”
How Students Can Be Effective Voting Rights Advocates
“The right to vote is fundamental and preservative of all other rights,” Riggs said. She encouraged students intending to work on voting rights to take the time to explore voting through the perspective of marginalized groups.
“There’s a real frustration that I think needs to be named and understood,” Riggs said, “when historically excluded communities who are being pushed out of the political process are then being told from the president all the way down to local officials ‘well go out and vote.’”
Riggs also reminded students that while they are trained to debate, listening is also important.
“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s not our voices that need to be heard.”