When Congressman Bobby Scott ran for re-election in 2010 in Virginia’s 3rd congressional district, he won 70 percent of the vote in his African-American majority district. Two years later, after the Virginia legislature redrew the district to make it even more African American, he won 81.3 percent of the vote. And in 2014, he took a remarkable 94.4 percent of votes.
On Monday, the Supreme Court asked a three-judge trial court to take another look at Scott’s district to determine whether it was the product of an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, as African-American voters have contended.
At the heart of the dispute is the redistricting rule adopted by the Virginia legislature in 2012 requiring that African-American majority districts be at least 55 percent black, ostensibly to avoid diminishing of the ability of minorities to elect candidates in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Because Scott’s district had gotten more diverse over time and had become only 53.1 percent African American by the time of redistricting, lawmakers reconfigured the district to remove white voters and to find black ones to add, ultimately creating a redrawn district that was now 56.3 percent African American.
African-American voters filed suit, saying that the legislature’s 55 percent black population target was arbitrary and not tied to the actual ability of African Americans to elect candidates. Scott, after all, had won the district handily in 2010, despite the fact that its African-American population at the time was less than 55 percent. Instead, they argue that, in going out of their way to add African Americans to the district, Virginia lawmakers had ended up splitting a large number of communities and drawing a district that was the least compact in the state.
In a 2–1 decision last October, the three-judge court sided with African Americans, ruling that Virginia had “show[n] no basis for concluding that augmentation of the Third Congressional District’s [black population] to 56.3 percent was narrowly tailored when the district had been a safe majority-minority district for two decades.”
Given the similarity of the Virginia claims to ones being made by African-American voters about Alabama’s 2012 legislative maps, observers were closely watching to see what the high court did with Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama.
When the Supreme Court handed down a decision last week in the Alabama case, most observers interpreted the ruling as a victory for minority advocates and expected the decision would impact the Virginia case. However, rather than choosing to rule on the Virginia claims itself, the high court sent the case back to the three-judge trial court in Richmond to weigh whether any changes needed to be made to its decision in light of the Alabama ruling.
Assuming — as many observers expect — the panel upholds its earlier decision, it would set the stage for redrawing of Virginia’s congressional map for the 2016 elections — and could make for an interesting few months of jockeying between the state’s Democratic governor and its Republican-controlled legislature. If they deadlock, Virginia could end up with a court-drawn map for the 2016 cycle.
In any event, the result could impact not only the electoral power of Virginia’s minority community, but also potentially the balance of Virginia’s congressional delegation, where Republicans hold a seemingly safe 8–3 advantage under current maps despite the fact that Virginia is a state where Democrats have increasingly won at the statewide level.