There’s certainly no guarantee that the U.S. Supreme Court, in sending North Carolina’s election district scheme back to the state Supreme Court for review, eventually will find that the General Assembly has engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering.
However, the high court in Washington could have gone the other way. It could have declined to consider a challenge to the redistricting plans brought by civil rights and social justice advocates. If that’s what had happened, the challenge would be dead.
So, we can say that the justices’ April 20 decision wasn’t sufficient to uphold the plaintiffs’ case and force legislative and congressional district boundaries to be redrawn. But it was necessary.
For those of us who want our state’s elections to be conducted with all proper respect for the ideals of representative democracy – meaning that they give minorities a fair chance to make their voices heard – it’s good that the redistricting challenge has been kept alive.
Republicans who control the state House and Senate, and who thus were in charge of redrawing the state’s election districts after the 2010 census, might even admit that they resorted to a little gerrymandering to enhance their candidates’ chances.
They’d note that Democrats used similar tactics (although nobody argues with a straight face that the Democrats pressed their advantage as hard). And they’d cite court decisions allowing some leeway for partisan gamesmanship in the fashioning of district maps.
While boundaries may have to be reconfigured to keep district populations in balance, the courts don’t allow minority voters to be parceled out in such a way that their voting strength is diluted. Whether or not that is the effect of any given redistricting plan can be a puzzle that forces lawyers and judges to hack their way through a legal briar patch. But it’s now clear that at least some members of the U.S. Supreme Court think North Carolina’s plans might have crossed the line.
Green light in Raleigh
The same plans were OK’d in December by a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court. Those justices accepted GOP legislators’ argument that the plans were designed to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires districts to be drawn so that concentrations of minority residents have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice.
(There also has to be a pattern of racially polarized voting, so that without districts meant to protect a racial minority’s voting strength, a minority-favored candidate would always lose. The degree to which such patterns still hold in North Carolina is a matter of dispute.)
Challengers say the plans amount to racial gerrymanders, prohibited under the Constitution as a denial of equal protection. They allege that unnecessarily large numbers of black voters have been packed into certain districts, which makes the surrounding districts more heavily white.
Given that conservative Republican candidates are more popular with white voters than with black, the upshot is to boost Republican fortunes while sticking the Democrats – winners mainly in their minority-dominated districts – with a few cynical consolation prizes.
The state Supremes said there was nothing wrong with moving more Democrats (who happened to be black) into districts already dominated by Democrats. But earlier this month, along came the high court in D.C. to throw that conclusion into doubt.
The case in point arose in Alabama, where legislators used the familiar “Voting-Rights-Act-made-us-do-it” rationale to engage in a blatant packing exercise. In an example cited by Justice Stephen Breyer, when 15,785 folks were shifted into one state Senate district to balance out the population and maintain the percentage of black voters, a whopping 36 of those who were shifted were white. Adjacent districts were “bleached,” leaving Republicans with the upper hand.
Breyer and a majority of his colleagues said the law didn’t require drawing districts with the same percentage of minority voters as before, as Alabama legislators had claimed – so long as black voters still had a fair chance to elect their preferred candidates. They sent the lawsuit back to the state’s courts with orders to take another look.
Tar Heels’ turn?
None of that amounts to good news for North Carolina’s Republican chiefs. They have insisted that to fend off a challenge under the Voting Rights Act, they needed to draw a batch of districts where black voters were in the majority (i.e., 50 percent plus one). They have insisted that they couldn’t allow the percentage of black voters in so-called majority-minority districts to decline.
The strategy has paid off, helping Republicans claim numbers of legislative and congressional seats out of proportion to the total votes cast for their candidates. They now may end up having to explain to Justice Breyer why he didn’t know what he was talking about when he said that the law “does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. It requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.”
Could it be said that as the targets of Republican gerrymandering, Democratic-leaning black voters simply are paying the price for being caught in a partisan knife fight? Well, yes – that’s part of it.
Yet there are solid reasons why minority voters, and blacks in particular, are accorded special protections under federal law. The reasons have to do with the long history of hideous discrimination inflicted upon those voters, and the country’s realization – at the apex of the civil rights movement – that they deserved extra safeguards as they moved to claim the full privileges of citizenship at the polls.
The Council of Churches stands in solidarity with the plaintiffs in these cases. It is fully aware of how voters must be able to assert an equal voice in elections if the winning candidates are to take those voters’ concerns seriously. If elected leaders can disregard those concerns, that is the path toward policy choices favoring the wealthy and the well-connected, not citizens outside the circles of power looking in.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday – announced in a simple, unsigned, one-paragraph order – doesn’t explicitly come to grips with any of these issues. But it leaves open the avenue by which the advocates of fairness in redistricting can pursue their cause.
Top GOP legislators say they’re not worried. Still, they might have to put up with a little nighttime tossing and turning – and if so, they’ve had it coming.