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The U.S. Supreme Court today takes up the thorny question of what kind of gerrymandering is acceptable and what kind is not. The case involves redistricting in Alabama, back in 2010. The court is being asked to decide whether the state overloaded some legislative districts with black Democrats on the basis of party or race. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Voting rights cases scramble politics and race. In this case, it's the Democrats who are crying foul because of what they call unconstitutional quotas. In contrast, conservative Republicans, usually critics of racial considerations, this time are defending government classifications based on race.
To understand the dimensions of the Alabama case, it's worth quickly reviewing the rules set down by the Supreme Court on redistricting in Southern states over the last quarter-century. In the 1990s, the conservative Supreme Court majority, in a series of decisions, ruled that if a redistricting plan is motivated predominantly by racial considerations, it's unconstitutional. Those decisions came in cases brought by conservative Republicans who objected to the Justice Department's attempt to expand the number of majority black or Hispanic legislative districts under the Voting Rights Act.
RICHARD HASEN: Now the tables are turned.
TOTENBERG: Election law expert Richard Hasen.
HASEN: And it is liberals and Democrats who are trying to use the racial gerrymandering claim to stop Republicans from packing reliable Democratic minority voters into a smaller number of districts.
TOTENBERG: Case in point, Alabama - a state rife with ironic political twists and a history of overt attempts to suppress the black vote. In 2000, the Democrats controlled the state legislature and the redistricting process. They used their power to create districts with black majorities under the Voting Rights Act, while at the same time putting enough reliably Democratic black voters into majority white districts so that white Democratic candidates could build a black-white coalition and have a chance of winning.
By 2010, the Republicans controlled the legislature, and they set about consolidating the black vote into the existing majority black districts. Under the plan, about one-sixth of all black voters were moved from majority white districts to majority black districts. The result was that in some of those districts, the black majority increased to over 70 percent. At the same time, the majority white districts got whiter and more safely Republican. The redistricting came after the 2010 census showed population shifts that made some existing districts way too big in population terms and others too small. The Republicans tried to equalize the size of the districts. They also tried to maintain the same number of majority black districts but now contend that under the Voting Rights Act, a simple majority of black voters in those districts was not enough. State Solicitor General Andrew Brasher.
ANDREW BRASHER: The state can not diminish the ability of black voters to elect their candidate of choice, for example, by making a district that was 65 percent black into a district that is 51 percent black.
TOTENBERG: Democrats disagree and contend the GOP plan calls for unconstitutional quotas. Richard Pildes is one of the lawyers who will argue before the Supreme Court today.
RICHARD PILDES: Alabama admits it used these racial quotas but says the Voting Rights Act made us do it. We say the Voting Rights Act does not require that, and therefore you have no legitimate reason for using racial quotas, period.
TOTENBERG: One example of the dispute is the Senate district representing Montgomery County Alabama. It was a majority black district that was underpopulated. To fix that, the Republican redistricting plan moved out white residents who had lived in the district for years and moved in 16,000 new voters, all but 36 of them black. The result was that the district became 75 percent black and the neighboring district similarly whiter.
BRASHER: That's where statistics can lead you wrong.
TOTENBERG: Alabama Solicitor General Andrew Brasher.
BRASHER: They drew a district that was just a more urban district. And they drew a district next to it that was a more suburban and rural district. Although those changes might have correlated with race, those changes were not driven by race.
TOTENBERG: Then, too, there's the argument made by the state that the reason it had to make majority black districts blacker is that it was compelled to do so under the Voting Rights Act. As early as 2010, however, Alabama was attacking the Voting Rights Act in court. And in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in an Alabama case, struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional. Query - so is the voting rights law still valid as applied to the 2010 redistricting - a plan that will be in place until 2020? The state says it's entitled to rely on that provision even though it's been struck down. Andrew Brasher.
BRASHER: The Supreme Court had, for years and years and years, held that the Voting Rights Act was constitutional. And there was no reason really for the legislators that engage in this redistricting process to presuppose that five members of the court were going to hold that Section Five was unconstitutional.
TOTENBERG: Lawyer Pildes replies that even if the state can rely on the law as it was in 2010, the law did not then and does not now justify the racial straitjacket that Alabama imposed in this redistricting. Ultimately, the question posed in this case is this - did Alabama's Republican-dominated legislature rely predominantly on race, or did it rely on partisanship when it was redrawing its districts? For the past 25 years, the Supreme Court has drawn a line between permissible redistricting based on partisanship and impermissible redistricting based on race. Election law expert Richard Hasen argues that sometimes they're the same thing.
HASEN: Especially if we're talking about the South, where African-American voters are voting for Democrats at rates above 90 percent. It's artificial to talk about race and party as being completely separate.
TOTENBERG: Similarly, the white vote is overwhelmingly Republican. In 2012, for instance, 84 percent of the white vote in Alabama was cast for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, while 95 percent of the black vote went for Barack Obama. The current Supreme Court majority has pushed aggressively to eliminate government classifications based on race, contending that they are no longer needed to remedy past discrimination. As Chief Justice John Roberts has said, the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. The question faced by Roberts and the court's other conservatives now is whether Alabama's redistricting plan is in fact based on racial quotas, or whether it's based on nothing more than partisanship and thus may remain in place. The court's decision could have ramifications beyond redistricting. Some of the same principles apply in election law cases that involve everything from voter ID requirements to restrictions on absentee ballots and early voting. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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