SCOTUS has a chance to undo madness of drawing districts according to race

In my last post, I discussed how hopelessly uncompetitive elections for the U.S. House are.

That’s because of the way legislators have drawn the districts, to make each one “safe” for one party or the other. In the South, and especially in South Carolina, that has involved Republican majorities drawing a few super-safe districts for black Democrats, while making the districts around them even safer for white Republicans — and ensuring GOP majorities in statehouses.

Thus far, the courts have allowed this sort of thing. Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court has a chance to change that:

… But the Supreme Court has decided to step into this one and will hear arguments in the matter next week. The justices are being asked to find that, as has happened many times in Alabama’s history, race played an improper role in how the state was reapportioned.

But the essence of the allegation is not that Republicans made it too hard for African American candidates to be elected. It’s that they made it too easy.

The challengers said the mapmakers packed African American voters into districts where they already enjoyed a majority, diluting their power elsewhere and easing the way for white Republicans to win everything else.

A three-judge panel that examined the 2012 redistricting process ruled 2 to 1 that the plan enacted by Alabama was constitutional and said the legislature’s intentions were not improper.

The challengers — black elected officials and the Alabama Democratic Conference — alleged that the plans “were the product of a grand Republican strategy to make the Democratic Party the ‘black party’ and the Republican Party the ‘white party,’ ” wrote Judge William H. Pryor Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. “The record does not support that theory.”,,,

The good judge must not be looking at the record closely enough.

Here’s hoping the Supremes see the situation more clearly. If so, the nation could take a step back toward having actual choices in the fall. And a step away from the madness of election legislators and members of Congress who see themselves as elected entirely by people of one race or the other. Which has never been a healthy thing for our republic.

34 thoughts on “SCOTUS has a chance to undo madness of drawing districts according to race

  1. Lynn T

    Doing the right thing on this one would go far to make our elections and our government healthier. It was ironic to see complaints that Harrell’s late disqualification from the race for his House seat deprives the voters of choices. The voters in most districts in this state have been deprived of choices through gerrymandering for some time now, and the same folks didn’t seem very concerned.

  2. Mark Stewart

    This is a very big opportunity for the Supreme Court to address an issue which actually lies at the heart of our Constitutional system of governance.

    Nothing is more important than having a structurally sound system of representative democracy. We do not now – to a far more significant extent than ever before in our history. No system will ever be perfectly competitive; but we have truly run our Republic off a gerrymandered cliff. That should be alarming to all people of all political persuasions.

    1. Juan Caruso

      Mark Srewart,
      And who brought us here?

      gerrymander Look up gerrymander at
      ‘As a Democratic-Republican he was selected as the fifth Vice President of the United States (1813–1814), serving under James Madison. He is known best for being the namesake of gerrymandering, a process by which electoral districts are drawn with the aim of aiding the party in power, although its initial “g” has softened to /dʒ/ from the hard /ɡ/ of his name.

      Gerry was at first opposed to the idea of political parties (e.g. Brad Warthen), and cultivated enduring friendships on both sides of the political divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        “political parties (e.g. Brad Warthen)”

        I believe the e.g. should be The Unparty. Brad is not, in fact, a political party.

  3. Karen Pearson

    The gerrymandering has done a lot to encourage the extremists in each party. If they can get out “their people” that’s all they have to do, because there is no one to effectively oppose them. I think that if we can make the districts reasonably competitive we can again have a government that respects and works for all.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I was wondering why you posted that here, instead of on the post I wrote about that (kind of ripping into it, actually).

        I realized I had left it in “draft” form yesterday. It’s now back-posted to yesterday. So thanks for reminding me…

        Oh, confession time: I didn’t watch the video. Didn’t have time. I was reacting to the text that accompanied it…

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          You really MUST find the time. If nothing else, no SC politicians are featured! Other states have whack jobs worse than ours!

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I’ve listened to it now, and I appreciate that he’s trying to get people interested in state politics, and pointing out how pointless all the noise about which party will control Congress is.

            But I don’t like his sneering approach. Rather than “pay attention to your state because it matters,” it’s “pay attention to your state because they’re all a load of bleedin’ nutters…”

            1. Michael Rodgers

              It’s awesome when he calls all the winners at the end. So many unopposed races, no choices for the voters, this is republican democracy?

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              And to go back to where we started…

              The REASON so many are bleedin’ nutters (when you pick out all the weird ones from 50 states) is that districts are drawn to elect either the incumbent, or an even more extreme member of the incumbent’s party, so we are pulled more and more into the lunatic fringe.

              That said, to this day, most still are not painfully eccentric. And don’t deserve to have scorn heaped upon them…

            3. Kathryn Fenner

              I believe Oliver is going to be effective in shaking the anomie off the hipster wannabes who watch his show….which can only be good…

  4. Michael Rodgers

    After SC’s redistricting, Harpootlian brought a similar lawsuit based on, among other things, the packing of black voters into Mia’s District 79. I think a federal panel went against him, and I’m guessing SCOTUS declined to hear it. Can’t find the resolution on a cursory search, but here’s a news item.

  5. Bryan Caskey

    Lot of things going on with this. You’ve got the “one person one vote” rule that requires redistricting after each census. You can’t dilute votes based on race, which would violate the 14th and 15th Amendments, but the issue is usually diluting by party – not race. However, if you make the argument that race is now kinda/sorta a proxy for party, and maybe if SCOTUS connects those dots (and that’s a BIG if) then this challenge could get somewhere.

    But you’ve also got the VRA which imposes requirements on states under certain conditions that require “majority-minority” districts. And there’s a lot more. It’s REALLY complicated. I got tired even sorting through everything at this point.

    Key quote from the 2-1 decision “This record offers no reason to conclude that the rules for redistricting were turned upside down when Republicans gained control of the Alabama Legislature. The parties have switched sides, but the law that governs their disputes remains the same. We refuse to read the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as mandating some kind of ‘Democratic candidate protection program.’”

    Bottom line, if we want to stop the gerrymandering (which we all agree is a problem) I don’t think we should look to SCOTUS to solve the problem. The Court’s job is to tell us what the law is, not solve our problems. We need to start making politicians want to re-draw the lines the way we want them to be drawn. Admittedly, that’s hard, because the politicians benefit from drawing the lines to protect themselves. But it’s possible.

    I just don’t think the Court is going to wade deeply into this issue and solve the problem. It’s on us.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The court didn’t “gut” the Voting Rights Act. It simply said that states don’t have to get ADVANCE approval for changes in voting law.

        Those changes can still be challenged, and the plaintiff will win if it is proved that the Act has been violated.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          That Southern states — and it was mostly just Southern states — had to get advance approval from the federal government of changes to state law was like some bizarre holdover of Reconstruction.

          Only nine states were subjected to this. Federalism was in place in the other 41. That was just wrong.

      2. Bryan Caskey

        Not really. SCOTUS merely said that the coverage formula used in section 4 of the VRA was from 1975, and therefore had “no logical relationship to the present day”. Congress is free to regulate under section 4, but they must do so based on updated numbers.

        Basically, SCOTUS told Congress to go do its homework, and until it did, Section 4 of the VRA was unavailable.

  6. Karen Pearson

    I’m inclined to agree with you Brian, but I see a problem. I don’t think we have more than one or two representatives (if that many) who would agree to any law that might give them any real competition.

    1. Mark Stewart

      And that is why I think the courts owe it to the country as a whole to take a stab at restricting obscene gerrymandering. We have the technology now. All they need to do is rule that the political lines must be drawn as geographically compact as possible.

      We can all live with a little fudging (or even a bunch) of the lines during the political horse-trading process, but our Constitutional order is dying a slow death without any restraint on gerrymandering districts.

      This is a bedrock issue.

          1. Silence

            As someone who lives “whre black people live” as you put it. I resent the Gerrymandering that deprives me of my right to NOT have Clyburn represent me.
            Damn you, Elbridge Gerry!

          2. Mark Stewart

            Government has decreed it illegal for banks to redline; but appropriate for political parties to do so.

            Got it. Makes perfect sense – if you are a politician.

  7. Michael Rodgers

    The concept “one person one vote” is good. Unfortunately, in practice, it’s interpreted to ridiculously require that the congressional districts in each state have exactly equal population, off by a maximum of one person, where people are counted using census blocks, even though there’s no way the census is correct down to one person, our whole system of federal government is based on states which have unequal population, and people don’t even have to live in the district they run for, just live in the state.
    Counties and state districts and all kinds of things get split necessarily under this “one person one vote” implementation, and anyway people can just move from one state to another if they want there vote to count more or to count less, and people move from one state to another all the time.
    A possible solution is zero districts and everyone in a state gets however many votes as there are representatives, just like the school board races.
    See also this column by Cindi Ross Scoppe.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Cindi’s done a lot of smart, creative thinking on this.

      Brian points out that the Voting Rights Act REQUIRES the drawing of “majority-minority districts.” To the extent that it does, that’s a big problem.

      The intent of the VRA is to prevent electoral injustice committed along racial lines. Deliberately bleaching multiple districts in order to produce one super-black district is just such an injustice.

      Also, there’s some really troubling condescension in the assumption that black voters are best represented by a black officeholder.

      What we should be doing is making sure that the deck isn’t deliberately stacked so that a minority candidate can’t get elected. What we should be doing is giving every candidate a reason to appeal to ALL voters in a community, regardless of ethnicity. We’d get far better, wiser, fairer laws that way.

  8. Norm Ivey

    I think I’ve linked this before, but I like the idea of multi-member districts as described by They argue that even drawing lines in a geographically compact manner would still not provide fair representation in a state like South Carolina. The proposal is similar to what Michael and Cindi describe and would bring a little more political diversity to the SC delegation.

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