By Leland Ware
Not since the Reconstruction era of the late 19th Century have efforts to suppress the African American vote been greater. On January 20, 2017, a three-judge federal district court ruled that Alabama’s legislature engaged in racial gerrymandering when it enacted a redistricting plan in 2012. The ruling is a victory in the state’s Legislative Black Caucus’ fight against redistricting plans that undermine the voting strength of African Americans.
Alabama’s Constitution requires the lawmakers to redraw legislative districts after every 10-year census. The districts that were challenged are part of a plan developed by the Republican-dominated legislature after the 2010 Census. Republicans won a majority in the legislature in 2010 and approved a new districting plan in 2012. Alabama’s Legislative Black Caucus and others sued, claiming that the plan packed large numbers of black voters into majority-minority districts in ways that reduced their influence in other districts.
To succeed on a claim of racial gerrymandering, the plaintiffs must prove that race was the predominant consideration in deciding to place a significant number of voters in or outside of a specific district. If the plaintiffs prove that racial considerations predominated, the defendants must prove that their consideration of race was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.
In this case a three-judge trial court ruled in the state’s favor in 2013, but the U.S. Supreme reversed that ruling in 2015. It held that Alabama intentionally adopted a policy of putting race above all other districting criteria except the one-person one-vote principle. The Court also found that the district court’s analysis of the gerrymandering claim, which considered the state as a whole rather than district-by-district, was legally erroneous. The case was sent back to the district court. In the January 20th decision the trial court ruled for the plaintiffs on 12 of the 36 districts in dispute. The court ruled in the state’s favor on the other 24 districts.
Redistricting is an extremely contentious issue. The Voting Rights Act requires legislatures to take race into consideration when drawing district lines. However, the Supreme Court has held that the Fourteenth Amendment prevents race from being the predominant factor in redistricting decisions absent a compelling justification for doing so. Legislatures must balance the requirement of not reducing the number of minority-majority districts with the prohibition against making race the primary consideration in drawing lines.
In December of 2016 the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning racial gerrymanders in North Carolina and Virginia. One case involves a Virginia legislative map that was redrawn after the 2010 census. Twelve districts for the State House were drawn to attain a 55% black voting age population. Legal challenges contended that the maps packed African-Americans in some districts and diluted their strength in others. A lower court upheld the districts concluding that race did not predominate in 11 of the 12 districts and, in the 12th, race was a permissible justification.
The other case concerns two congressional district maps that were drawn in North Carolina to ensure that they had a black voting age population of 50%. A lower court ruled that the maps were unconstitutional. Rulings are expected in both cases before the current Supreme Court term ends in June.
The rulings in the Virginia and North Carolina cases may provide guidance on when considering race in redistricting goes too far and the analytical framework courts should use to make that determination. The sordid episodes of 21st Century racial discrimination by Republican-dominated state legislatures must be halted.