By Ruth Greenwood, Voting Rights Project Coordinator
The Supreme Court issued a ruling yesterday in the case of Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, reversing and remanding a decision that Alabama did not engage in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering when it drew state legislative redistricting plans in 2011. The Court has previously held that legislators may not use race as the “predominant motivating factor” in redistricting but in ALBC v. Alabama it strengthened that protection by holding that a focus on maintaining a particular numerical minority percentage in a district is evidence of racial gerrymandering. The Court urged legislators to “take account of all significant circumstances” when assessing whether the minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice is maintained.
The fact that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was enacted to protect minority voting rights is without question. What policies protect minority voting rights, however, is a subject of constant debate. Minority representation may be considered to be protected where people of color can vote; can elect candidates of their choice; are descriptively represented; and/or are substantively represented. These possible goals are often in tension with one another, and there has been a tendency by Courts, and by those drawing redistricting plans, to revert to seeing people of color as statistics on a map. The Court’s recognition that math and statistics is not enough to explain or protect the promise of the VRA is is a demonstrably good thing.
Strictly, this was a case about section 5 of the VRA - that now impotent section of the Act that requires jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting to pre-clear changes in election laws with the Department of Justice (DOJ). Section 5 currently applies to zero jurisdictions, thanks to the Court’s Shelby County decision in 2013. Alabama will likely respond to the Court’s findings by re-redistricting, but it won’t have to pre-clear the new plan by the DOJ. There is a high likelihood that the legislature will dismantle some districts that currently elect the candidates of choice of the black community, and that the legislature will draw the entire map to seek partisan advantage. Though we hope that some day the law will stop these practices, as least the map drawers won’t be able to treat black voters as a problem to be “packed” into as few districts as possible.
The Court’s decision means that black voters in Alabama will be treated with a little more dignity than before, and it shows that the Court understands that people of color’s involvement in political life is about more than just math.