Today, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases that confront the role that race should play in determining legislative districts. Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, concerned with Virginia state legislative districts, and McCrory v. Harris, focused on North Carolina congressional districts, ask the Court to clarify the law on racial gerrymandering. While these cases and others involving redistricting are multi-faceted and complicated from a legal perspective, they all essentially ask how an individual’s vote should be counted. The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) believes no vote should be diluted, because a representative democracy should truly mirror its people.
Before diving in to the specific cases, it helps to quickly review redistricting. At the start of each decade, state legislatures have the opportunity to redraw state and congressional legislative districts based on the most recent census. Gerrymandering occurs when the maps are redrawn to favor a particular political party or demographic group.
The rules of redistricting vary from state to state, but many states view this process as a means for partisan gain. When Republicans are in charge, the districts are drawn to favor Republicans, and vice-versa. The Supreme Court has generally allowed partisan gerrymandering, but the law becomes infinitely more complicated when race is involved.
According to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a redistricting plan cannot prevent minority voters from casting sufficient votes to elect their preferred candidates. A remedy for a time when African American and other voters of color were unable to elect candidates of their choosing, this provision has led to the creation of numerous “majority-minority” districts across the country. Seemingly contrary to this provision, in 1993 the Supreme Court ruled in Shaw v. Reno that race can be considered, but cannot be the predominant factor, in redistricting. So where does this leave the courts, the states, and most importantly, the voters?
In Bethune-Hill v. Virginia, the state drew a redistricting plan in which 12 state districts had 55% African-American voters. Appellants argue that adhering to this arbitrary number diluted the votes of African Americans in those and nearby districts — essentially, African Americans within the 12 districts would be voting far above the threshold necessary to elect a candidate of their choice, and African Americans outside the 12 districts would be unable to elect candidates of their choosing. NCJW joined voting rights organizations in an amicus brief authored by the Campaign Legal Center in support of the appellants (Bethune-Hill).
In McCrory v. Harris, lawmakers in North Carolina are accused of racial gerrymandering in the creation of two congressional districts. Interestingly, Republicans in the legislature argue that one of the districts was created simply to help the Republican Party. However, when party tracks so closely to racial lines (or vice versa), it becomes difficult to prove whether race or party was truly the predominant factor in the redistricting, further complicating the matter. And, should the Court accept North Carolina’s argument, it would give a free pass to legislatures to use race as the predominant factor in redistricting so long as their actions can be neatly disguised by partisan interests. NCJW joined an amicus brief in the case, also authored by the Campaign Legal Center, in support of the appellees (Harris). Cloaking racial gerrymandering as redistricting for political gain would make it easier for states to chip away at the voting power of people of color.
At the heart of both Bethune-Hill v. Virginia and McCrory v. Harris is the value of a single vote. NCJW members in Florida, Maryland, Michigan, and elsewhere have worked to make redistricting more non-partisan, because every vote should be of equal worth. Voting is at the core of our democracy, and the presence of these cases on the docket of the Supreme Court emphasizes how much courts matter.
Two hundred and forty years after our nation was founded, our elected officials still do not resemble our diverse population. It’s not enough to simply elect officials who share our policy views. We need lawmakers who share our lived experiences, understand our backgrounds, and are as invested in our futures as they are in their own. When the votes and voices of people of color are diluted, we all lose out on having a richer, more representative democracy.
Faith Fried is a Legislative Associate at the National Council of Jewish Women