North Carolina’s persistent effort to limit the political influence of African Americans gets a full airing before the U.S. Supreme Court Monday in a case challenging the use of fixed racial quotas to set the boundaries of congressional districts.
At issue in McCrory v. Harris is one of our democracy’s most cherished principles – the promise of equal political opportunity for all, regardless of race – as enshrined in our Constitution by the 14th and 15th Amendments, and by the Voting Rights Act.
Over the last five years, North Carolina has repeatedly trampled on the political equality of its African American citizens. Three years ago, for example, the legislature enacted a harsh law that made it harder for African Americans to vote, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit invalidated, calling it “the most restrictive voting legislation seen in North Carolina since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965… target[ing] African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
McCrory v. Harris concerns the 2011 redrawing of congressional districts, when the state legislature packed African Americans into the first and twelfth congressional districts based on a racial quota, marginalizing their influence elsewhere. The use of a racial quota produced two monstrously misshapen districts.
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The state claimed the new lines were necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act, but this argument does not withstand scrutiny.
In both districts, African Americans had successfully elected the candidates of their choice by forming coalitions with like-minded white voters – in line with the multiracial democracy promised by the 14th and 15th Amendments. The Voting Rights Act was passed to foster this cooperation. There was simply no good reason to use a racial quota to pack African Americans into the two districts.
The congressional districts, in fact, subvert the 14th and 15th Amendment’s guarantees of equality.
Recent precedent compels the Supreme Court to invalidate North Carolina’s racial gerrymandering. Two years ago, in a gerrymandering case from Alabama, the Court stated the Voting Rights Act requires legislatures to take “account of all significant circumstances,” not to “mechanically rely on numerical percentages,” as the North Carolina legislature did.
States may draw majority-minority districts to help realize the promise of equality contained in the 14th and 15th Amendments, but they must do so based on hard evidence, not on racial quotas.
A ruling striking down these districts would be an important victory not just for those challenging them, but also for our Constitution’s promise of equal political opportunity for all.
David H. Gans is the director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights and Citizenship Program at the Constitutional Accountability Center.