by Esmeralda Simmons, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice
In a five to four decision on March 9th, the Supreme Court narrowed the protections of Voting Rights Act, holding that Section 2 does not require the drawing of electoral districts favorable to candidates of color where people of color make up less than fifty percent of the population. In so ruling the Supreme Court rejected North Carolina’s argument that the Section 2 of Voting Rights Act required government officials to maintain Black influence by creating districts that included about 39 percent of voting age Blacks. Writing for the plurality Justice Kennedy stated “Nothing in Section 2 grants special protection to a minority group’s right to form political coalitions, There is a difference between a racial minority group’s ‘own choice’ and the choice made by a coalition.”
Bartlett involved North Carolina’s 18th assembly district. Beginning in 1999, the North Carolina General Assembly drew district 18 to include portions of four counties, including Pender County, in the southeastern section of the state in order to create a district with a majority Black voting age population and to satisfy the Voting Rights Act. Ever since, District 18 had consistently elected a Black representative. Following the 2000 Census, the Black voting age population in dropped from roughly 50 percent to 35.33 percent. As a result the General Assembly could no longer draw a geographically compact majority-minority district. In its third redistricting attempt, the General Assembly in 2003 split Pender County in an effort to give Black voter the potential to join with white voters to elect their candidate of choice. In so doing, however, the General Assembly ran afoul of the state’s Whole County Provision laws which prohibits the dividing counties in drawing districts for the State Senate and House. Pender County and five members of the Board of Commissioners sued the Governor, Director of the State Board of Elections and other state officials alleging that the 18th district violated the Whole County Provision. The defendants, including the Governor, raised Section 2 as a defense.
Justice Kennedy was joined in the plurality opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.,. Justice Thomas, agreeing with the outcome but not the plurality reasoning, in a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Scalia, took an even narrower view of Section, writing, “The text of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act does not authorize any vote dilution claim, regardless of the size of the minority population in a given district.” Justices Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer dissented.
The Court’s decision in Bartlett v. Strickland will likely limit people of color’s ability to urge the drawing of influence districts and to challenge restricting plans that dilute the minority vote after the 2010 Census. The decision also will strengthen the voice of conservatives who, in the wake of the election of President Obama, have been arguing that there is no longer a need for the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act. Indeed, this argument is currently before in the second major voting rights of this term, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder. A case involving a constitutional challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to obtain government preclearance of changes in voting procedures and practices. That case is scheduled to be argued in April. Community activists and voting rights advocates must begin now to prepare educational and training programs for the 2010 Census. Blacks and others who historically have not responded to the Census must be made to understand the importance for both federal funding, and redistricting and voting rights.