SCOTUS Takes on Unfair Racial Gerrymandering

Posted by Dan Vicuña on March 25, 2015

Today the U.S. Supreme Court made it easier to challenge unfair racial gerrymanders done for partisan advantage. In Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, the Supreme Court issued an opinion creating much-needed protections against legislators who manipulate district lines by diluting the voting power of minority voters during the redistricting process.

The Alabama legislature’s Republican majority packed black voters into a small number of state legislative districts during the redistricting process to reduce their political power in surrounding districts. The legislature set an arbitrary goal for population equality between districts and then used their self-imposed goal to justify packing more black voters into underpopulated districts that were already overwhelmingly black. The legislature also claimed that the Voting Rights Act required the percentage of black voters in districts with a black majority to remain the same or higher as it was before redistricting.

In one example, Senate District 26 was 72.75% black before redistricting. The legislature added 15,785 residents. Only 36 of these newly added individuals were white.

Here are the key holdings in this case:

  • Population equality does not justify racial gerrymandering. The use of race must be weighed against other “traditional race-neutral districting principles,” such as compactness, contiguity, respect for political subdivisions or communities defined by actual shared interests, incumbency protection, and political affiliation. Population equality is not one of these principles. This will eliminate one of the excuses legislatures often use to justify reducing the political power of minority voters for partisan purposes.
  • The Voting Rights Act does not require majority-minority districts to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. As the Court notes, the Voting Rights Act requires map drawers to “maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.” This will prevent legislators from adding minority voters to majority-minority districts – a strategy for limiting their influence in surrounding districts – and then claiming that the Voting Rights Act made them do it.
  • Racial gerrymandering claims must be heard with respect to individual districts. The District Court should not have interpreted the plaintiffs’ claims as applying to the entire state and then rejected those claims simply because some districts were not racially gerrymandered. This holding will make it harder for legislatures to defend blatantly gerrymandered plans by pointing to a handful of districts they happened to draw fairly.

This case will now be sent back to be heard again in District Court.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Voting and Elections

Tags: Redistricting

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