Some court rulings end fights. Others rev them up. In this decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued two such decisions. In 2019, the court declared it had no power to intervene when a political party draws voting maps for maximum partisan advantage, a practice known as gerrymandering. In the other, in 2013, the court threw out a core element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, declaring that the country’s progress in overcoming racial discrimination meant that the measure was no longer warranted.
The Supreme Court’s gerrymandering ruling focused on challenges to district lines in North Carolina that opponents said were drawn to create 10 safe seats for Republicans out of 13 overall, and to one district in Maryland that Republicans said was drawn to oust one of their House members. Critics of gerrymandering say it leads to uncompetitive elections that don’t reflect the will of the voters, but Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a 5-4 majority, said that federal courts had no role in “one of the most intensely partisan aspects of American political life.” The 2018 midterm elections sparked litigation, including a federal lawsuit in Georgia alleging widespread voting problems and seeking sweeping election changes. Florida voters passed a ballot amendment in 2018 to restore voting rights to felons, and New York and other states where Democrats took complete control of executive and legislative branches in 2019 enacted new laws aimed at increasing voting. Since the 2016 elections, at least 14 states have enacted new voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, part of a surge in legislation passed after the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision by state governments controlled by Republicans. In terms of gerrymandering, nine states have switched to systems that use independent or bipartisan panels to draw district lines, while Iowa relies on a nonpartisan state agency.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act enfranchised millions of black people in the South who had been barred from voting by poll taxes, literacy tests and other such laws. One of its key provisions, Section 5, required that changes in district lines or other matters related to voting be pre-approved by the Justice Department in areas determined by a formula that looked at voter registration rates, turnout and ballot-box rules in the 1960s and early 1970s. The pre-clearance provisions were applied to most of the South along with Alaska and Arizona and small pockets of states including California, Michigan and New York. Over the years, Section 5 was used to block thousands of proposed changes. Congress renewed the act in 2006 by large bipartisan majorities. In June 2013, writing in a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Roberts ruled that Congress had erred in leaving the list of covered areas unchanged for decades despite progress in reducing racial discrimination.
Critics of the two Supreme Court decisions say the effect of both will be to help Republicans in states where they control the legislature. Republicans say that Democrats have used gerrymanders to further their own political aims for years, and note that state courts can still rule against redistrictings seen as hurting minority voters. Supporters of the Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act say the law has served its purpose. Republicans say the new election laws, many of which require voters to present photo IDs, are meant to ensure election integrity. Democrats respond by pointing to studies showing that voter fraud is extremely rare: Evidence in a Texas case suggested that only two instances of in-person voter fraud had been found among the 62 million ballots cast in the state in the previous 14 years. In his final press conference before leaving office, President Barack Obama described the U.S. as “the only country in the advanced world that makes it harder to vote rather than easier.” He said the phenomenon “traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery” — a very different interpretation than the Supreme Court took in its 2013 decision.
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First published March 6, 2015
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