Redistricting Round-up: Race and Politics Collide in Redistricting Cases

March 28, 2016

Race, Politics, and Redistricting in the South

Race and politics are often entangled in redistricting disputes, especially in the South, and the difficult question of where to draw the line between racial and partisan motive is the crux of two cases playing out in the courts this month.


On March 21, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Wittman v. Personhuballah about whether Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, as drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2012, was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

The disputed map was struck down twice by a federal three-judge panel before the court adopted a revised congressional map earlier this year. Virginia is no longer defending the original district map, but a group of current and former Republican lawmakers appealed, asking the Supreme Court to restore the original district lines ahead of the June congressional primary. 

During argument, the Supreme Court’s liberal justices appeared skeptical of the Republican challengers’ arguments. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned how they could claim the maps were drawn primarily to benefit Republicans and incumbents when the drafter of the original map testified that “[h]e didn’t take into account partisan performance” but instead simply decided that at least 55 percent of the voting population in the 3rd District should be African American. Justice Elena Kagan pushed further, questioning the premise of whether drawing districts for partisan advantage could be a permissible objective when it so clearly implicates race.

On the other hand, the conservative justices seemed to wrestle with whether the Court should intervene in such a partisan fight. Chief Justice John Roberts asked how it is possible to determine legislative motive if “10 percent of the legislators say this is because of race — that's their motive — 10 percent say it's because of partisanship and 80 percent say nothing at all.”  Justice Anthony Kennedy pressed the lawyers on the issue of incumbency, raising questions about whether protecting incumbent legislators was a legitimate goal in redistricting.

If the justices split four-to-four in this case, a scenario made possible by the current vacancy on the Court, it would uphold the lower court decision that threw out Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District as a racial gerrymander.

North Carolina

Racial and political gerrymandering allegations also are in dispute in North Carolina. In February, a three-judge panel threw out the state’s congressional map after ruling the 1st and 12th districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. Republican legislators responded by drawing a controversial new district plan that they openly acknowledged is a partisan gerrymander. “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” said state Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), one member of the mapdrawing committee. “So I drew this map in a way to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

Plaintiffs challenging the replacement map argue that rather than fix the constitutional deficiencies with the original map, it adds an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander to the still-existing racial gerrymander. The federal panel could rule on the new challenge as early as this week.

This saga created confusion leading up to the March 15 primary and has left many voters feeling cynical and disengaged. North Carolina voters have voiced support for redistricting reform, with 59 percent agreeing that a nonpartisan body should draw districts, according to a February poll conducted by Public Policy Polling. Thus far, however, proposals designed to eliminate partisanship from the redistricting process have not gained traction in the legislature, though they’ve received support from Gov. Pat McCrory (R).

Read more analysis on these cases and more to watch here.

Other News and Analysis

  • A federal court in Florida ruled last week that prison gerrymandering in Jefferson County violates the 14th Amendment. The current county districts were drawn including the prison population, creating a situation in which some districts have significantly more voters than others. The court said this dilutes voting strength in areas where there are no prisons. Barring an appeal, county officials must redraw the districts before elections in June.
  • Argument is scheduled this week in a lawsuit brought by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), challenging the redrawing of her congressional district by a state court. The district was redrawn after Florida’s congressional map was thrown out as a violation of the state’s “Fair District” constitutional amendments, which banned partisan gerrymandering in 2010. Brown contends the new district violates the Voting Rights Act.
  • A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Pennsylvania are pushing a reform bill that would create an 11-member independent redistricting commission and implement rules designed to improve the mapdrawing process, including an explicit ban on partisan gerrymandering. The proposal is supported by Fair Districts PA, a statewide coalition of 14 good government and community groups.
  • The Arizona Senate passed a measure to expand the Independent Redistricting Commission from five members to eight. No more than three of the commissioners would be allowed to be from the same political party and map approval would require at least five votes. If the commission deadlocks, mapdrawing authority would shift to the legislature. Before being implemented, the proposal must pass the state House and then go before voters.
  • Philip Bump of The Washington Post argues that the key to achieving a better functioning, more bipartisan government is ensuring that districts are drawn competitively.
  • Nancy Kaffer of the Detroit Free Press highlights the importance of redistricting reform in Michigan. Though it will not appear on the ballot this year, she encourages voters to get more informed and involved. She suggests contacting the League of Women Voters of Michigan which organized a series of informational meetings last fall.