On Monday, the Supreme Court made two notable decisions related to voting and voting rights that promise major ramifications for the 2018 midterms and beyond.
SCOTUS booted a case on North Carolina’s politically gerrymandered districts back to a lower court Monday morning, asking the court to reconsider its previous decision, which found that the state’s GOP-drawn election maps were so skewed toward Republicans that they were unconstitutional. In a separate case concerning racial bias in gerrymandered districts in Texas, the court issued a 5-4 decision upholding all but one congressional district.
As the New York Times reports, the North Carolina decision is the second time in two weeks that the high court has evaded the issue of partisan gerrymandering. In the North Carolina case, the Republican-led Legislature set up a map explicitly designed to give the GOP 10 out of 13 congressional seats.
In 2017, the Supreme Court found North Carolina’s election maps unconstitutional because state Republicans had drawn them along racial lines. They were designed, based on census data, to mitigate the impact of black voters, who lean Democrat.
The GOP was still explicit in its intent to maintain Republican advantage among North Carolina voters for the new maps, but didn’t use racial data to draw them this time.
“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”
He added: “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.”
When voters went to the polls that fall, the outcome was exactly as Lewis had predicted, even though Republican candidates won just 53 percent of the statewide vote.
While SCOTUS opted not to rule on the North Carolina case, the high court did reach a decision in Abbott v. Perez, which concerns election mapmakers targeting minority voters in Texas. In a deeply divided ruling, the court upheld three of the four congressional districts.
As Slate reports, a lower court ruled last year that Texas had violated the Voting Rights Act with its districts, which “diluted the votes of Hispanic residents.”
That SCOTUS would rule against the lower court’s decision and uphold the district lines is remarkable enough—in her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the voting maps “in design and effect, burden the rights of minority voters”—but Slate pointed out an important concurrence written by Justice Clarence Thomas supporting the decision.
In it, Thomas claimed that the Supreme Court didn’t go far enough. “Rather than reject the plaintiffs’ VRA claims, [Thomas] wrote, the Court should have overturned decades of precedent to hold that the [Voting Rights Act] does not prohibit racial gerrymandering at all,” Mark Joseph Stern writes for Slate.
More from Stern:
For decades, the Supreme Court has held that Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] outlaws gerrymanders that dilute the votes of minority citizens. ... The court has explained that vote dilution occurs when mapmakers limit a minority group’s ability to translate its voting strength into voting power, drawing district lines to ensure that white voters can select its preferred candidate.
The concurrence was co-signed by Neil Gorsuch, who, as the latest addition to the Supreme Court, was a deciding vote in the Abbott v. Perez case.
Outside of Thomas and Gorsuch, the idea that the Voting Rights Act doesn’t prohibit racial gerrymandering doesn’t appear to have taken hold, but as Republicans continue to double down on maximizing the power of their mostly white base, it’s a disturbing harbinger of battles to come.