Supreme Court weighs in on racial gerrymandering

Posted at 7:14 PM, Mar 01, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By Ese Olumhense

Virginia decision overruled

In a decision celebrated by voting rights and anti-gerrymandering advocates on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a federal district court to reconsider whether race was a dominant factor in the decision of Virginia legislators to redraw 11 voting districts in the state.

After the 2010 Census, Virginia lawmakers remapped some districts to maintain a black voting-age population of at least 55 percent. This, the lawmakers said, was merely done in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. But progressive groups pushed back, claiming the redrawn districts unconstitutionally concentrated black voters in select districts, ultimately diluting the political power those voters have in the rest of the state.

In the resulting legal challenge, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in 2015 that the remapping is constitutional, finding that race was not the controlling factor, but one in a package of other “race-neutral” considerations.

But Wednesday’s opinion — authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy — overruled that, holding that the ultimate “racial motive” was the problem, even if other factors were weighed in the remapping.

“By deploying those factors in various combinations and permutations, a state could construct a plethora of potential maps that look consistent with traditional, race-neutral principles,” Kennedy’s opinion read. “But if race for its own sake is the overriding reason for choosing one map over others, race still may predominate.”

Voter suppression remains a major American issue

In 2013, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder eliminated a significant provision of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, Section 5. It had mandated that nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — as well as a swath of other localities with histories of racial discrimination, receive Department of Justice or federal court “preclearance” to change election laws.

The ruling ushered in a wave of voting restrictions in many states, from tightened voter ID laws to ending same-day voter registration. Civil rights advocates say the laws impacted voting access in the recent presidential election — which was the first since Section 5 was eliminated.

Six states that were previously covered by Section 5 had more restrictive voting laws in place on Election Day in 2016 than they had when former President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, the Brennan Center for Justice said. The changes had pronounced impact on communities of color: Of the 11 states with the highest black turnouts in the 2008 race, six had adopted new restrictions by Nov. 8, 2016. And of the 12 states where the population of Latinos grew most in the last several years, seven passed more stringent voting laws.

As a result, voter suppression was the major issue for civil rights advocates in the recent election. Many states, including Wisconsin and North Carolina, saw depressed voter turnouts compared to 2012.

The crusade against voter fraud

The Virginia case decided on Wednesday is one of many voter suppression fights that is likely to gain momentum over the coming years. President Donald Trump has claimed more than once that millions of illegal voters are to blame for his historic popular vote loss in the presidential race, and Vice President Mike Pence is said to be heading a task force to conduct a formal inquiry into this alleged fraud.

Advocates are wary this task force could have major implications.

“An expensive investigation of imaginary voter fraud is not needed,” Brennan Center President Michael Waldman said in a January statement. “It could easily devolve into a witch hunt. Worse, it could be used to justify sweeping voting restrictions. There is no need for another investigation that is not independent, rigorous, and fact-based.”

Though it’s not known if the investigation Trump promised has commenced, the crusade against voter fraud is already playing out aggressively in state legislatures. Sixty-eight bills restricting access to registration and voting have been introduced in 27 states this year, the Brennan Center reports. Some states, including Virginia, have even introduced “show me your papers” bills, which would require proof of citizenship as part of voter registration.

More states, however, are actually working to expand voting access. A total of 422 bills, including proposals that would register voters automatically, restore the right to vote for those with past criminal convictions, and increase early voting access have been introduced in 41 states, the Brennan Center notes.