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Decision could affect current challenge in Texas and future GOP efforts to pack black voters into districts
By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling striking down the congressional map approved by North Carolina lawmakers after the 2010 census because it relied too heavily on racial considerations in drawing the new lines.
The May 22 ruling will have little impact in North Carolina because lines were already redrawn after the state lost the case in the lower court. But in the long term, it could limit the ability of Republican majorities in Southern statehouses to pack black voters into a small number of districts, thereby maximizing the number of safe GOP seats.
It could also have an impact on pending litigation in Texas, where the U.S. House map is being challenged by Latino and Democratic groups over alleged racial gerrymandering.
After the high court’s ruling, a federal judge in San Antonio overseeing the case asked Texas’s lawyers to consider whether legislators might “voluntarily” meet in special session to consider changes to the state’s map. There was no immediate response from state leaders.
The case in North Carolina was the high court’s latest attempt to resolve the tension between the 14th Amendment, which forbids using race as the primary consideration in drawing political lines, and the Voting Rights Act, which requires legislators in most Southern states to maximize the potential of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.
At issue were the 1st and 12th districts, which were changed substantially after the 2010 census as part of an effort to make the state’s districts equal in population, as required by earlier Supreme Court rulings.
Under the new lines, the black voting age population in the 1st District rose from 48.6 percent to 52.7 percent, largely by adding majority-black areas of Durham into the district. The black voting age population in the 12th District also rose from 43.8 percent to 50.7 percent, which was done by replacing existing white voters with black voters not previously in the district.
The state had defended the changes by arguing they were made to comply with the Voting Rights Act. But the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, authored by Justice Elena Kagan, rejected that argument, noting that both seats had already been represented by African-American Democrats without the addition of more black voters.
Kagan wrote that the Voting Rights Act “gave North Carolina no good reason to reshuffle voters because of their race.”
Kagan was joined in the opinion by her fellow liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, along with conservative Clarence Thomas, the only African-American on the court.
Three other conservatives justices — Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy — agreed with the majority that the 1st District had been impermissibly drawn but disagreed about the validity of the 12th District. The court’s newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, did not take part in the case.
After losing the case at U.S. District court, North Carolina’s legislature redrew the state’s entire map, which was used in the 2016 elections. African-American incumbents in the 1st and 12th districts — G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams — both won, although Adams was forced to move to Charlotte and run in new territory after her home in Greensboro was drawn out of her previous district.
The new map did not change the political balance in the state’s congressional delegation, which remained at nine Republicans and three Democrats. Its only significant effect was forcing two Republican incumbents — George Holding and Renee Ellmers — to run against each other. Holding won.
Over the last 30 years, as Republicans have taken control of state legislatures across the South, majority black districts created to comply with the Voting Rights Act have sent African-American representatives to Congress, in many cases for the first time since Reconstruction.
However, the packing of black voters into these districts have reduced black voting age populations in surrounding districts, making them more Republican. One result has been that white Democrats, who were once the mainstay of Southern congressional delegations, have all but disappeared.
Only six Southern states — Florida, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia — are currently represented by any white Democrats. And out of 40 Southern Democratic representatives in Congress, only 15 are non-Latino whites, compared with 20 African Americans and five Latinos.
Out of 109 Republicans representing the region, 105 are white, three are Latino and just one, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, is African-American.
Texas, where the congressional map is currently being challenged, presents a particular wrinkle in application of the Voting Rights Act because it contains large concentrations of both African-American and Latino voters.
While black voters tend to be strong, partisan Democrats, Latino voters are somewhat less so, which makes it difficult to advance the argument that lines are being drawn for political reasons, which is legal, rather than for racial considerations, which is not.