The U.S. Supreme Court returns Monday to the issue of race in politics when it hears claims that North Carolina and Virginia packed African-Americans into a small number of voting districts to limit their statewide electoral power.
Both cases present challenges to new maps drawn after the 2010 census. In North Carolina the issue is the boundaries for its congressional districts, while in Virginia state legislative districts are contested.
Both states say they face two competing pressures. The Voting Rights Act requires them to consider race when redistricting so that minority voting rights are not diluted. But past Supreme Court rulings have held that race cannot be the predominant factor when the maps are redrawn.
North Carolina is accused of packing African-American voters into two congressional districts — the First, which the challengers describe as "a behemoth sprawling from the rural Coastal Plain to the City of Durham," and the Twelfth, a narrow band than arcs from Charlotte to Greensboro and has been described as the nation's most oddly shaped district.
The challengers say the state packed in more African-American voters even though they were already electing minority candidates by forming coalitions with white voters. There was no need, their lawsuit says, to add more minority voters, which diminished their voting strength in other districts.
"The State of North Carolina wrote the book on racial gerrymandering," says Washington, DC lawyer Marc Elias, who represents the challengers in both cases. The state acted "to string together disparate black communities from far-flung parts of the state."
North Carolina says politics, not race, was the main factor in drawing the new maps. Washington, DC lawyer Paul Clement, representing both states, says the consultant who prepared the plan for North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature "did not even look at racial demographics."
In essence the state claims it wasn't packing blacks into the two disputed districts, it was shifting Democrats.
The Virginia case involves twelve state legislative districts in which African-American voters amounted to between 46 and 62 percent of the population. When the new maps were drawn, each had a black voting population of over 55 percent.
Such a mechanical approach, the challengers say, is clear evidence that race was the predominant factor. "People cannot be viewed first and foremost as a function of their face in determining whether to place them in one district or another," Elias says.
Virginia says it was honoring the requirement of the Voting Rights Act to avoid diluting the minority vote and "arrived at the eminently reasonable number of 55 percent" as the appropriate minimum for the minority voting age population.
The justice must decide whether the new maps are the result of politics as usual, with the party in power trying to maximize its strength, or unconstitutional racial discrimination.
The court will announce its decision by late June.