The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that two congressional districts in North Carolina were drawn to limit Black voters’ power in the state. The ruling reaffirms a North Carolina District Court’s previous finding.
“A State may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. Kagan was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Following the release of the 2010 U.S. Census, North Carolina redrew Districts 1 and 12. The Black voting-age population (BVAP) went up 4 percentage points in District 1 and 7 percentage points in District 12.
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) allows for states to draw district lines by race — but only up to a point. In North Carolina, the court concluded, the redistricting had not only been unnecessary, but concentrating Black voters in fewer districts gave them less influence in the state overall.
For District 1, Kagan pointed out that Sen. Robert Rucho and Rep. David Lewis, both Republicans, made it known that the redrawing of boundaries was racially motivated, citing public comments the men made about the topic.
“[They] were not coy in expressing that goal,” Kagan wrote. “They repeatedly told their colleagues that District 1 had to be majority-minority, so as to comply with the VRA.”
But the redistricting wasn’t necessary, the court found, as District 1 has historically voted in favor of minority’s preferred candidates over the 20-year period prior:
“In the closest election during that period, African-Americans’ candidate of choice received 59% of the total vote; in other years, the share of the vote garnered by those candidates rose to as much as 70%,” Kagan wrote. Since white voters were already not voting in a bloc, there was therefore no clear need to increase the BVAP.
Similarly, the court rejected the idea that District 12 needed to be redesigned. The new boundaries for District 12 increased the BVAP even greater than in District 1.
“To be specific, the new District 12 had 35,000 more African-Americans of voting age and 50,000 fewer whites of that age,” according to the majority opinion.
The state argued that the redrawing was done to increase Democratic voters in District 12 and had nothing to do with race. However, an analysis by political expert Dr. Stephen Ansolabehere found that “regardless of party, a black voter was three to four times more likely than a white voter to cast his ballot within District 12’s borders.”
“Those stark disparities led Ansolabehere to conclude that ‘race, and not party,’ was ‘the dominant factor’ in District 12’s design,” Kagan wrote.
The fact that Black voters tend to vote Democratic is not a secret: a Pew analysis estimated that in 2016 about 87 percent of registered Black voters were Democrats or leaned Democratic.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissent, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, explaining that the lines between partisan versus racial redistricting reasoning are blurred given that Blacks often vote Democratic.
“This phenomenon makes it difficult to distinguish between political and race-based decision making,” according to Alito. “If around 90 percent of African-American voters cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate, as they have in recent elections, a plan that packs Democratic voters will look very much like a plan that packs African-American voters.”
Richard Hansen, chancellor’s professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, explained the difference in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
“A racial gerrymander exists when race — not other criteria, such as adherence to city and county boundaries, or efforts to protect a particular political party — is the ‘predominant factor’ in how a legislature draws lines and the legislature presents no compelling reason for paying so much attention to race,” according to Hansen.
And the majority’s ruling will no longer allow Republicans to inappropriately apply the VRA’s racial guidelines or hide behind the guise of redistricting for partisan, not racial, reasons.
“In North Carolina, about 90 percent of black voters are Democrats; conversely, the overwhelming majority of whites are Republicans. When the Republican legislature passes a plan to limit Democratic voting power, it necessarily affects black voters,” Hansen said.
The ruling is likely to influence future cases, particularly in Southern states, several of which have faced recent legal battles regarding racial gerrymandering.
“Kagan’s approach should allow voting rights plaintiffs to bring more successful racial gerrymandering claims,” according to Hansen.
Recently appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the case as it was heard prior to his appointment.