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Christian Smith-Socaris on March 12, 2009 - 11:52am
This week the US Supreme Court ruled on the scope of the minority vote dilution component (section 2) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In doing so the court interpreted the VRA to only protect the voting power of minority groups when they constitute a majority of the electorate in a legislative district. This ruling makes the requirements of section 2 significantly narrower then the defendant in the case, the chief elections official for the state of North Carolina, had believed it to be.
North Carolina had broken its own constitution's requirement that legislative districts respect county boundaries in order to avoid diminishing the concentration of African-American voters from 39% to 35% when redrawing a district in 2003. One of the now-split counties sued, resulting in this week's ruling.
Though the VRA speaks only generally of preventing the dilution of minority votes in order to preserve the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their own choosing, the court has now made clear that only districts with a majority of minority voters (a so called "majority-minority district") are protected from vote dilution. In North Carolina the district in question is a "coalition district" where minority voters are able to pick their choice of candidate only when joined in coalition with other voters.
The controlling opinion was written by Justice Kennedy in the conviction that courts need a clear rule for when section 2 applies to avoid what he views as the constitutionally suspect insertion of race into government decision making. While this decision is a loss for minority voting power and will likely lead to a greater number of minority "packed" districts, many Circuits Courts have previously adopted the Supreme Court's view, limiting the impact of this particular ruling.
The most positive aspect of the decision was a strong statement by Justice Kennedy that “racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history." Court watchers almost unanimously viewed Justice Kennedy's forceful assertions about the continued problems of racism as a sign that the court in another coming voting rights case (which will almost assuredly see Kennedy casting another deciding vote) will likely uphold the power of the Department of Justice to "pre-clear" election law changes in jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchising minorities to make sure that they don't violate voting rights.