Cooper v. Harris
On May 22, 2017, the Supreme Court held that North Carolina legislators redrew two legislative districts in ways that intentionally discriminated against African American voters. Using the pretext of complying with the Voting Rights Act (VRA), North Carolina’s General Assembly redrew the boundaries of two legislative districts to dilute the voting strength of African Americans.
The events leading to this case began when the 2010 census showed that North Carolina’s District 1 was significantly underpopulated. To comply with the one-person-one-vote principle, the State needed to place almost 100,000 new people in the district. The other District, (District 12), did not need any changes as it was only overpopulated by 3,000 people out of over 730,000 residents. Despite the lack of any significant population changes boundary lines were redrawn in ways that significantly altered the district’s racial composition. It gained approximately 35,000 African-Americans of voting age and lost 50,000 whites. The black voting age population increased from 43.8% to 50.7%.
To prevail on a claim of racial gerrymandering the plaintiff must prove that race was the motivating factor in the decision to place a significant number of voters in or outside of a particular district. This requires a showing that the legislature subordinated traditional districting considerations to racial considerations. If racial considerations predominate, the burden shifts to the State to prove that its race-based voter distributions serve a “compelling interest” and are “narrowly tailored” to achieving that goal. The Supreme Court has held that compliance with the VRA can be a compelling justification.
In this case legislators decided African-Americans should constitute majority of the voting-age population in District 1. They argued that the district needed a majority-minority voting population to comply with the VRA. In Thornburg v. Gingles the Supreme Court identified three conditions for proving vote dilution under Section 2 of the VRA. First, a minority group must be sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a legislative district. Second, the minority group must be politically cohesive. Finally, the district’s white majority must vote sufficiently as a bloc to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.
In this case North Carolina’s evidence did not satisfy the third Gingles prerequisite; white bloc-voting. The evidence showed that year after year, District 1 was a “cross-over” district, in which white voters helped African Americans to elect the candidates of their choice.
In the case of District 12, North Carolina claimed that legislators redrew lines to “pack” the district with Democrats, not African Americans. Rejecting this argument the Supreme Court concluded that the evidence presented at trial adequately supported the conclusion that race, not partisan considerations, was the predominate factor in the district’s configuration.
The Court also rejected the State’s claim that a plaintiff in a racial-gerrymandering case had to prove that an alternative districting plan would have the same partisan impact without the same racial demographics.
As one commentator explained, “the equal protection clause does not have a partisanship exception.” Republican-dominated state legislatures have created brazen racial gerrymanders, pushing black voters out of GOP districts and herding them into Democratic ones. States attempting to use packing to dilute the voting strength of black or Latino voters cannot hide behind the Voting Rights Act to justify doing so. Republican efforts to manipulate and corrupt the electoral process undermine the foundations of our democracy.