The U.S. Supreme Court issued a devastating blow to race-based gerrymandering Monday when it ruled that North Carolina’s Legislature used racial considerations in redrawing two of the state’s voting districts.
That’s the lead you’re likely to read as news outlets everywhere report on the high court’s 5-3 decision declaring that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled Legislature relied too heavily on race when it drew two congressional districts.
But as with online user agreements and Steve Harvey employee memos, the devil is in the legalese-laden details.
When North Carolina redrew Congressional District 1, the black voting-age population increased from 47.6 percent to 52.65 percent, reports CNN. Similarly, the percentage of black voters in the state’s newly reconfigured 12th District rose from 43.7 percent to 50.66 percent.
While, on the surface, this seems to help black voters, the districts’ boundaries snaked and weaved through areas to include minorities who would ordinarily be in other districts, thereby reducing the power of the black vote in other areas. This is a standard practice of gerrymandering that confines the influence of minorities to designated “minority majority” districts and decreases their impact in whiter, more Republican areas.
According to the Washington Post, in arguing Cooper v. Harris, North Carolina admitted that its lawmakers used race to determine the district lines, but they only did so to preserve the Republican majority in the state Legislature.
The Supreme Court has always been cool with using partisan politics to minimize the impact of voters. The nation’s highest legal authority has never struck down a map drawn to give one party the advantage over the other. According to the Supreme Court, nothing in the Constitution prevents politicians from using political bias to disenfranchise voters. Lawmakers are even allowed to use race to create voting areas that benefit their specific political party, as long as race is not the determining factor.
In fact, North Carolina’s entire argument was basically: “Yes, we used race, but that was only so we could make sure Republicans kept control of the Legislature. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Apparently, there is. In the ruling, the court’s liberal justices, along with (OK, you’re not going to believe this) Clarence Thomas, determined that North Carolina piled black voters into the two districts simply because they were black. Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her majority opinion:
Uncontested evidence in the record shows that the state’s mapmakers, in considering District 1, purposefully established a racial target: African Americans should make up no less than a majority of the voting-age population. ... Senator Rucho and Representative Lewis were not coy in expressing that goal. They repeatedly told their colleagues that District 1 had to be majority-minority, so as to comply with the VRA [Voting Rights Act]. During a Senate debate, for example, Rucho explained that District 1 “must include a sufficient number of African Americans” to make it “a majority black district.”
Justices Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy agreed that the districts favored Republicans, but disagreed that they were determined by race.
“Partisan gerrymandering is always unsavory, but that is not the issue here,” Alito wrote in his dissenting opinion. “So long as the Legislature chose to retain the basic shape of District 12 and to increase the number of Democrats in the district, it was inevitable that the Democrats brought in would be disproportionately black.”
While the Supreme Court decision marks a victory for North Carolina and future gerrymandering disputes, the court’s acceptance that states can predetermine election results by finessing the system is troubling. The overtures are also bad harbingers for an upcoming Wisconsin case that challenges partisan gerrymandering.
Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s recent addition to the Supreme Court, did not vote because he was not yet on the court when the case was heard.
Read the official decision here (pdf).