SCOTUS takes on racially defined redistricting

While Voter ID laws have received tremendous national attention for suppressing minority voters, in some states redistricting has had an equally detrimental effect on minority voters and fair elections. Hope remains, however, that recent SCOTUS actions may lead to changes for the 2016 election.

This spring the United States Supreme Court has stepped in to address racial gerrymanders in Alabama and North Carolina. Each state has been asked to reconsider existing judicial decisions on districts drawn following the 2010 census. Additional states are expected to follow.

The question of law comes from the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Acts stipulates that minorities must have the ability to vote for their candidate of choice after the redistricting process. The constitution, however, prohibits the districts from being defined by a racial gerrymander.

The challenged state districts exist due to different interpretations on how to achieve this stipulation. In Alabama, districts were packed with black voters in too few districts while achieving a statewide percentage goal. Alabama Republicans argued that the statewide percentage of minority districts was in compliance with the Voting Rights Act whereas SCOTUS ruled that the percentage should be applied to each district.

Similarly, in North Carolina, the Republican legislature intentionally created majority-minority districts when redistricting. The three North Carolina Superior Court judges that ruled in favor of the controversial districts believed that while race was considered in drawing the districts, is was done in compliance with the Voting Rights Act. SCOTUS has asked North Carolina to reconsider this ruling.

Every 10 years states go through a redistricting process. The purpose of redistricting makes sense - use new census data to examine population growth and ensure districts are fair and accurate. However, both Democrats and Republicans have used redistricting to their advantage for decades. In the majority of states the political party in power either directly, or through the guise of a non-partisan redistricting panel that is appointed by the party in power, draws new district lines with census data.

Across the country redistricting is a hot topic, with at least 87 bills in state legislatures, many with an emphasis on a non-partisan model. There is bi-partisan support for many of these efforts – however, it remains to be seen if the well-meaning support becomes law.

To date, only US state that has a truly non-partisan redistricting process is Iowa. The non-partisan legislative staff draws districts and submits to the legislature for an up or down vote. Many advocates for fair redistricting are asking other states to follow Iowa’s model. It is hard, however, to gain broad-based support as the existing systems allows so much power to whichever party has the majority.