Mapping minority victories: Justices limit reach of voting act
Race should not be considered when redrawing election districts if the minorities in those districts make up less than 50 percent of the population, the Supreme Court ruled March 9 in limiting the scope of the Voting Rights Act.
The act, which allows voting districts to be created in such a way that helps minorities elect their preferred candidates, can only apply to districts in which minorities make up at least 50 percent of the population.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the decision that the federal law does not require state legislatures to create “crossover” districts, a combination of majority white voters who might side with a smaller minority of voters to elect black candidates.
The 5-4 decision by the court against the North Carolina legislature said the state should have abided by its own laws that forbid dividing counties when it redrew part of Pender County into the 18th district. North Carolina maintained that it created the crossover district after the 2000 census to satisfy a minority population of 39 percent. While not 50 percent, it was enough for the black voters of the county to determine the outcome of elections, the state said.
“The legislators’ rationale was that splitting Pender County gave African-American voters the potential to join with majority voters to elect the minority group’s candidate of choice, while leaving Pender County whole would have violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” said the decision, which included Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 prevents states from diluting minority votes through redistricting, and the ruling now sets a percentage of minority voters present that would trigger this switch. The ruling said the law does not require crossover districts as North Carolina maintained, but that it “leaves room” for states to create such a district.
“Some commentators suggest that racially polarized voting is waning — as evidenced by, for example, the election of minority candidates where a majority of voters are white,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
“Still, racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and tradition, and 2 must be interpreted to ensure that continued progress,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
“It would be an irony, however, if 2 were interpreted to entrench racial differences by expanding a ‘statue meant to hasten the waning of racism in American politics.’ Crossover districts are, by definition, the result of white voters joining forces with minority voters to elect their preferred candidate. The Voting Rights Act was passed to foster this cooperation. We decline now to expand the reaches of 2 to require, by force of law, the voluntary cooperation our society has achieved,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg along with Justices David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer said in their dissent that the ruling creates an “arbitrary threshold” that will discourage the creation of crossover districts.
The justices said the decision will pressure state lawmakers to “pack black voters into additional majority-minority districts, contracting the number of districts where racial minorities are having success in transcending racial divisions in securing their preferred representation.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticized the decision as “a serious blow to the progress of the civil rights movement through its cramped reading of the historic Voting Rights Act.”
“Congress intended with the Voting Rights Act to enable racial minorities to participate in the political life of our democracy,” Mr. Leahy said.
Instead, the ruling will also reduce the number of districts where minorities can get elected, Mr. Leahy said.
“As Congress reaffirmed in its recent nearly unanimous reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, this landmark law is meant to continue the historic expansion of inclusion and openness in our democracy. The Supreme Court’s decision today is a step in the wrong direction,” Mr. Leahy said.
“Throughout its history, the United States has made significant strides toward a more inclusive democracy, amending the Constitution and passing civil rights laws to ensure that all Americans enjoy equal protection under the law and the ability to fairly elect their own representatives. The Supreme Court’s decision today threatens to undermine those goals,” Mr. Leahy said.