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North Carolina’s Racially Discriminatory Maps Show Why the Voting Rights Act Must Be Restored

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would help ensure fair representation for communities of color.

Associated Press

When North Caro­lina redrew its legis­lat­ive and congres­sional districts 10 years ago, the Voting Rights Act required that it — along with other states with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion — submit their maps for review by the Justice Depart­ment or a federal court before putting them into effect, a process known as preclear­ance. The current round of redis­trict­ing is starkly differ­ent.

 In 2013, the Supreme Court inval­id­ated the formula in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that determ­ined which states were subject to preclear­ance. In the years since that decision in Shelby County v. Holder, polit­ical grid­lock in Congress has thwarted efforts to update the formula and bring the Voting Rights Act back to full strength. That fail­ure has allowed North Caro­lina to enact some of the most discrim­in­at­ory district maps in its history after the 2020 Census.

To fill the void left by an idle Section 5, civil rights and good govern­ment groups in North Caro­lina have rushed to court to chal­lenge the maps. This ongo­ing litig­a­tion is a race against the clock as elec­tion dead­lines loom. With the 2022 elec­tions getting closer, it’s more urgent than ever that Congress pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act to make sure communit­ies of color have adequate protec­tions.

Before Shelby County, the Section 5 preclear­ance process stopped discrim­in­at­ory schemes that would dimin­ish the polit­ical influ­ence of communit­ies of color, an effect known as retro­gres­sion. North Caro­lin­a’s new congres­sional map is a case in point for why pre-imple­ment­a­tion scru­tiny for discrim­in­at­ory effects is needed.

North Caro­lina received an addi­tional congres­sional seat after the 2020 Census due to rapid popu­la­tion growth among communit­ies of color, which accoun­ted for nearly 90 percent of the state’s over­all gains. Nonethe­less, rather than increase elect­oral oppor­tun­it­ies for voters of color, the legis­lature elim­in­ated a histor­ic­ally major­ity-minor­ity seat currently held by Rep. G.K. Butter­field (D), a member of the Congres­sional Black Caucus. Butter­field criti­cized the enacted plan as “racially gerry­mandered” in a speech announ­cing his retire­ment, stat­ing that the map “will disad­vant­age African Amer­ican communit­ies.”

Under a full strength Voting Rights Act, this map would have under­gone a retro­gres­sion inquiry. The DOJ would compare a covered juris­dic­tion’s proposed district scheme to an internal “bench­mark” plan — gener­ally, the last nondis­crim­in­at­ory plan to have received preclear­ance or been drawn by a court, with adjust­ments made for demo­graphic changes. If the analysis revealed that the new plan decreased elect­oral oppor­tun­it­ies for voters of color, the DOJ would require revi­sions.

For North Caro­lina, the bench­mark is the 2019 congres­sional map adop­ted by a state court to remedy a pro-Repub­lican gerry­mander that viol­ated the state consti­tu­tion. The newly adop­ted congres­sional map differs from that court-drawn bench­mark plan in ways that will likely reduce the polit­ical influ­ence of voters of color, even as their numbers have grown. In other words, a retro­gres­sion inquiry may well have stopped this discrim­in­at­ory map from taking effect.

The new district config­ur­a­tion elim­in­ates one of the state’s two major­ity-minor­ity districts and packs nonwhite popu­la­tion into the other one. A third district that was close to being major­ity nonwhite now has fewer of people of color. The other districts largely see major popu­la­tion centers divided up in ways that do not follow community lines or natural geographic bound­ar­ies. Wake, Mecklen­burg, and Guil­ford Counties, all home to size­able communit­ies of color, are each split across three separ­ate districts under the new plan. And Forsyth and Guil­ford Counties are broken apart, suggest­ing an effort to dimin­ish the influ­ence of Black voters in and around the city of Greens­boro, echo­ing maps from last decade that were found to viol­ate the state consti­tu­tion.

The chart below orders North Caro­lin­a’s congres­sional districts from highest percent­age nonwhite voting age popu­la­tion (a stand-in for eligible voters) to lowest, and the arrow indic­ates how these percent­ages shif­ted from the bench­mark to the enacted plan.

Focus­ing in on changes to the district that Butter­field currently holds reveals more specific evid­ence of retro­gres­sion. By remov­ing Green­ville and diverse areas in east­ern North Caro­lina, GOP map draw­ers lowered the nonwhite voting-age popu­la­tion in the district from 52.4 percent to 49.4 percent — mean­ing the district’s eligible voters are now major­ity-white. The Black voting-age popu­la­tion alone decreases from around 41 percent in the old plan to roughly 38 percent under the new map, making it more diffi­cult for Black voters to elect their preferred candid­ate. While much of the district stayed the same, over 62 percent of the voting-age people added to the district are white, while nearly half of those moved out of the district are nonwhite. These changes around the margins, as demon­strated by the map below, change both the over­all compos­i­tion of the district and its polit­ical lean. 


As the graphic shows, map draw­ers carved out several major­ity-nonwhite areas from the east­ern part of the bench­mark district and pulled in major­ity-white areas such as Caswell and Person Counties. Polit­ic­ally, the once solidly-Demo­cratic district becomes highly compet­it­ive under the new map. Before announ­cing his retire­ment, Butter­field was included on the National Repub­lican Congres­sional Commit­tee’s list of Demo­crats to target during the 2022 elec­tion cycle, under­scor­ing how the map-draw­ing process in North Caro­lina is part of a broader effort to tip the polit­ical scales. Too often, these partisan object­ives are achieved at the expense of fair repres­ent­a­tion for communit­ies of color, partic­u­larly in the absence of federal over­sight. With preclear­ance revived, these changes would be analyzed by experts to ensure that they do not decrease oppor­tun­it­ies for voters of color.

Rein­vig­or­ated protec­tions would also mean that the district includ­ing Char­lotte — where minor­ity voters were packed into a single district and Demo­crats outnum­ber Repub­lic­ans by a three-to-one ratio — would receive close scru­tiny. The same goes for the lines carving up Greens­boro, a heav­ily Black city, across four separ­ate districts each with nonwhite voting age popu­la­tions of around 30 percent.

Such review would flag blatant back­slid­ing and require legis­latures to redraw maps found to be retro­gress­ive. North Caro­lin­a’s new plan, as well as recent maps in Texas, Geor­gia, Alabama, and other states, demon­strate the need for this pre-imple­ment­a­tion review so that voters of color are ensured a baseline of fair­ness and don’t have to rush litig­a­tion.

In her dissent in Shelby County, Justice Ruth Bader Gins­burg said that “throw­ing out preclear­ance when it has worked and is continu­ing to work to stop discrim­in­at­ory changes is like throw­ing away your umbrella in a rain­storm because you are not getting wet.” She was right, and this redis­trict­ing cycle has unleashed a monsoon of maps that under­cut the voting power of communit­ies of color. Congress must meet this moment and restore crit­ical protec­tions by passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act.