This past week, the Supreme Court struck down two congressional district maps in North Carolina as unconstitutional gerrymandering.
What is gerrymandering?
As you know, we have congress members who represent our districts and represent us. But have you ever thought about how those districts are drawn? Ideally, they would be drawn in a proportional manner that allows fair representation of the people living in that state. However, political districts are often drawn in a strange way, meant to help a political party win that district. That is what gerrymandering is – drawing districts in a way that gives a political party advantage in the elections. Often, as shown in the image below, these drawn boundaries will make little geographical sense.
Unfortunately, both Democrats and Republicans have been responsible for manipulating election results in this way. Yet, this practice violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, as well as the Voting Rights Act.
What happened in North Carolina?
The plaintiffs in the case alleged that North Carolina legislators diluted the power of black voters by drawing district lines in a way that grouped together black voters into certain districts, so that black voters would have less voting power in the other districts. The court found two of these districts to be unconstitutional due to racist gerrymandering.
Look at this picture depicting the two congressional districts at issue in the case. How oddly drawn are they?
Credit: Alyson Hurt/NPR (http://www.npr.org/2016/03/10/469548881/north-carolinas-congressional-primaries-are-a-mess-because-of-these-maps)
The Court found that racial considerations were the predominant factor motivating legislators to draw the districts in that way. And since the state did not show it had a compelling reason to use race as the predominant factor when drawing the districts, the Court said that it was unconstitutional gerrymandering. It is unconstitutional because, not only is it discriminatory, but it also undermines our basic tenets of democracy.
This decision is a victory for our democracy. Current and future credible gerrymandering lawsuits could now have more weight, as plaintiffs may successfully show that racial considerations have unjustifiably motivated the drawing of certain political districts in a specific way. Note, however, that this does not mean that states are barred from drawing districts based on race considerations. A state could do that if, in part, it proved in court that it had a “compelling reason” to use race as a predominant factor.