Election cases hinge on race

By Scott Mooneyham | Mar 04, 2013

RALEIGH — In 1835, Alexis de Toqueville wrote, "In almost all the states where slavery has been abolished, voting rights have been granted to the Negro, but, if he comes forward to vote, he risks his life."

A hundred years after the French political writer toured the United States, slavery had long been abolished in all of the states, but in many, the reality for black voters had not changed.

In the decades since, race and election law in the United States have become intertwined in ways that are both understandable and vexing.

Since the 1980s, state law, federal law and court decisions have combined to create a world where race cannot be discounted, but also not overemphasized, when it comes to elections and election districts.

Today, courts in North Carolina and at the federal level are again examining exactly how race has been and should be considered in formulating election law and election districts.

At the state level, Democratic activists and civil rights groups are challenging new legislative districts drawn by Republicans, contending that the 2011 maps unconstitutionally packed black voters into gerrymandered districts to boost GOP election chances.

At the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case brought by an Alabama county asking that a portion of the Voting Rights Act, which requires election changes in some states to receive approval by the U.S. Justice Department, be tossed out.

These cases come as both political parties use increasingly sophisticated map-making software, identifying voters by party and race down to the neighborhood level, to draw election district maps designed to enhance their chances of controlling stat legislatures and Congress.

In the process, state legislatures and Congress become more dominated by ideologues as contests in politically, if not racially, gerrymandered districts are decided in electoral primaries where moderate voices are drowned out.

It is unlikely that either the federal or state courts will take that reality into account as they consider the respective cases.

Rather, the cases will hinge on race, whether minority voting strength will be harmed without federal review, and whether the creation of legislative districts with larger minority populations dilute minority voting strength in others and violate rules for district compactness.

In the North Carolina case, the GOP mapmakers argue that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling affecting New Hanover and Pender counties gave them the green light to create more minority districts with larger minority-voting populations.

The argument, interestingly enough, stems from a case in which the justices ruled that a minority state House district was not required in the two counties because the area did not contain enough minority voters to make up a majority-minority district.

That ruling and the current state case beg an obvious question: What is an area? Is it whatever legislative mapmakers say it is, even if it looks like bug splatter on a windshield?

And so, the system conspires to both protect racial minorities and their voting rights, while race is simultaneously used as a bludgeon by political parties looking for advantage.