Supreme Court Rejects 'Mechanical Interpretation' of Voting Rights Act

Wednesday’s decision was a victory for advocates who have argued the Voting Rights Act may not be used as a pretext for undermining the voting power of minority communities.

March 26, 2015
Supreme Court Building

Minority groups in Alabama scored a victory at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, when, in a 5-4 decision by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Court told a three-judge panel in Montgomery that it needed to take a second, closer look at Alabama’s 2012 legislative redistricting plans to determine whether any of the districts represent an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

African-Americans legislators object to the plans, contending that the white Republicans — who gained control of the Alabama Legislature after the 2010 election — had used the guise of the Voting Rights Act to concentrate black voters into supermajority districts, diluting the overall electoral strength of black voters — a strategy that voting rights advocates say that legislators in North Carolina, Virginia, and elsewhere in the South also used in the most recent redistricting cycle.

At the crux of the dispute, in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, is the question of whether the Voting Rights Act requires minority controlled districts to have a fixed percentage of minorities. Alabama argued at the Supreme Court that it believed that the Voting Rights Act mandated that if a district had been 70 percent African American before redistricting, it needed to be 70 percent African American after redistricting — even if that meant mapdrawers had to go out of their way to find African-American voters to add to the district in order to simultaneously satisfy the legal requirement that districts have equal populations.

In the case of Alabama’s maps, this interpretation resulted in radical changes to the boundaries of a number of districts where African Americans had successfully elected candidates for years. In one extreme example, mapdrawers needed to add nearly 16,000 people to an African-American majority senate district in central Alabama to make the district the same size as others. While there were a number of white voters in the area who could have been added to the district without requiring significant boundary changes or impacting African-American electoral effectiveness, mapdrawers chose instead to completely redraw the district to add 15,549 African Americans and, remarkably, only 36 whites.

Calling Alabama’s interpretation of the Voting Rights Act “mechanical,” the Supreme Court said that both the Alabama Legislature and the three-judge panel had asked the “wrong question.” The question under the VRA was not, “How can we maintain present minority percentages in majority-minority districts?” Instead, it was: “‘To what extent must we preserve existing minority percentages in order to maintain the minority’s present ability to elect the candidate of its choice?’” If minority voters needed to be added to a district to ensure that minorities can elect candidates of their community’s choice, then a district might be constitutionally justified. On the other hand, if the ability of minorities to elect candidates could be preserved without adding far-away African-American voters or splitting natural communities, then a district could be unconstitutional as a racial gerrymander.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision did not strike down Alabama’s legislative maps, however. Rather, the Court found that the trial court also erred when it analyzed the maps as a whole rather than on a district-by-district basis — something the Court said was required by its earlier racial gerrymandering cases. The high court, instead, sent the case back to the three-judge panel to ask for each challenged district, first, whether the legislature had equalized the population of districts “predominately on the basis of race” rather than “other ‘traditional’ factors,” such as following political boundaries or keeping neighborhoods together and, second, if it finds that the legislature had relied predominately on race, whether that race conscious redrawing of boundaries had been necessary to preserve the ability of African Americans in a district to elect candidates.

Litigation over the Alabama maps is not yet done. The court below, applying the standards set out by the Supreme Court, could still uphold Alabama’s districts — and depending on what it rules, the case could yet reach the Supreme Court again. But Wednesday’s decision is a victory not only for African Americans in Alabama, but for voting rights advocates in North Carolina, Virginia, and elsewhere in the South who have argued that white-dominated legislatures had used compliance with the Voting Rights Act as pretext to justify undermining, rather than enhancing, the power of disadvantaged minority communities. 

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