North Carolina’s most recent attempt to prevent Black voters from influencing elections received a setback late Friday night after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to stay, or stop, a ruling by a lower court forcing the state’s Republican-led legislature to redraw its electoral maps because they amounted to racial gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering, which is legal, allows state legislatures tomanipulate the boundaries of congressional districts to favor a particular party. However, it is not legal to do so on the basis of race. In the case of North Carolina,by packing more Blacks into districts that already voted for Black representatives, it reduced the number of Blacks in other districts.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina on Feb. 5 ruled that the state’s congressional redistricting maps were unconstitutional because lawmakers used race to determine the districts’ shape and voting populations. The court had given North Carolina until Friday, Feb. 19 to redraw the maps.
The Supreme Court’s decision to decline a stay means the lower court ruling stands as is and any elections in the state’s 1st and 12th Districts, both majority-Black districts, are halted until new maps are redrawn and approved.
The order was one of the first significant actions the high court has taken since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last week. Prior to Scalia’s death, North Carolina Republicans and Republicans nationwide had expected the court to stay the lower court’s ruling.
For years, those two districts have been electing Black candidates. They are currently represented by two Black Democrats:U.S. Rep. George K. Butterfield Jr. represents District 1, and U.S. Rep. Alma S. Adams is the congresswoman from District 12.
The U.S. Voting Rights Act protects minorities from having their voting strength diluted. The U.S. District Court, a three-judge panel, in its finding said there was “strong evidence that race was the only nonnegotiable criterion and that traditional redistricting principles were subordinated to race,” concluding that North Carolina had set a “racial quota” in each of these districts.
The court described the 12th District as a “serpentine district [that] has been dubbed the least geographically compact district in the Nation.”
Judge Max Cogburn, in a concurring opinion, described the district as “so contorted and contrived that the United States Courthouse in Charlotte, where this concurrence was written, is five blocks within its boundary, and the United States Courthouse in Greensboro, where the trial was held, is five blocks outside the same district, despite being more than 90 miles apart and located in separate federal judicial districts. How a voter can know who their representative is or how a representative can meet with those pocketed voters is beyond comprehension.”
The two district maps were redrawn following the 2010 census and used in the last two congressional elections.
“The state’s improper use of race to sort voters by the color of their skin has violated the 14th Amendment rights of millions of North Carolina citizens,” Washington attorney Marc Elias wrote on behalf of voters David Harris and Christine Bowers, who filed the federal lawsuit against North Carolina.
Rev. William Barber of the state NAACP, which has sued in state court over the maps, praised the federal district court’s ruling as “a huge victory in our fight against 21st century racism and discrimination.”
North Carolina reportedly has done more to restrict voting rights in the post-Jim Crow era than any other state.
Since Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2010, there have been numerous complaints and lawsuits suggesting a concerted effort to illegally change voting rules to suppress Black voting power, including a voter ID law and restrictions on early balloting and same-day registration. Decisions on federal lawsuits filed by the NAACP and other civil rights groups arguing that these laws are an intentional move by Republicans to suppress voters of color are still pending.