Race, Voting Rights, and the Supreme Court: Alexander v. S.C. State Conference of the NAACP

On Oct. 11, 2023, the Supreme Court heard the opening arguments for a case regarding redistricting and a potential violation of voting rights. Following the 2020 Census, a new congressional map was issued by South Carolina’s predominantly Republican Senate. This redistricting moved over 30,000 Black voters out of Congressional District 1. The South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP sued the Senate arguing that this was done to move oppositional Black voters out of an area that the Republican officials wanted to be able to control. In January of 2023, a panel of three judges ruled that this was an unconstitutional case of racial gerrymandering, which is defined as redistricting that violates the Equal Protections Clause of the 14th Amendment by being predominantly motivated by race without compelling reason. This clause is incredibly imperative in securing civil rights as it requires states to create and enforce legislation without bias. The panel, after an eight-day trial, decided unanimously that the South Carolina General Assembly had to redraw the 2022 congressional map.  Currently, the South Carolina Senate officials involved in this redistricting are appealing to the Supreme Court saying that the new map is permissible as a politically-centered partisan gerrymander that simply included the consideration of race. 

The case was filed by the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and Hilton Head community leader and representative of the prevalent Gullah-Geechee community, Taiwan Scott. Legal Defense Fund Senior Counsel Leah Aden, who is leading the defense of the apellee’s case, argued that, “[The legislators] were consistently looking at race because they had an expectation that race was a predictor of how political parties would perform.” Aden also claimed that, “[The record] reflects that there was a significant sorting of Black people, it reflects unrebutted expert evidence of race rather than party explaining the assignment of voters, it reflects a disregard of traditional redistricting principles.” The defense also cited multiple precedents set by previous cases to support their argument, providing a history of the Supreme Court’s legal exploration of the unconstitutionality of racial gerrymandering. 

The history of the Supreme Court’s decisions on gerrymandering begins with Baker v. Carr (1962), which set the precedent that the federal courts had jurisdiction to hear constitutional challenges to redistricting legislation enacted by state governments. In 1964, Wesberry v. Sanders gave rise to the principle of “one person, one vote,” which dictates that states have a duty to draw congressional maps to be as representative of the population as possible. A few decades later, the landmark Shaw v. Reno (1993) ruling officially established the precedent that race could not be the dominant reason for redistricting, which essentially coined the legal concept of racial gerrymandering. In 2017, racial gerrymandering came to the forefront of political discourse, with Cooper v. Harris, establishing a major victory for civil and voting rights activists, as the Supreme court forced North Carolina to redraw their congressional maps, a legal consequence that hadn’t been enforced since 1986. This case then set the foundation for the most important case leading up to Alexander, Rucho v. Common Cause. After decades of the Supreme Court dodging the threat to democracy that gerrymandering poses, this prolific case decided that partisan gerrymandering is not a claim that can be resolved by federal courts. Partisan gerrymandering is where state governments divide their state into electoral districts strictly to give a certain political party an unfair advantage over another. It has been argued that partisan gerrymandering leads to vote dilution, which is when votes, usually those cast by people of color, are given less impact during an election compared to their white peers. This case allowed for states to blatantly gerrymander and allowed for the apellates of Alexander to legally justify their redistricting legislation by claiming that these maps were an attempt at legal partisan gerrymandering. 

These past cases all culminate in the case that is now being argued before the Supreme Court this year, directly made possible by Rucho. Aden argued that, despite this ruling, it is unconstitutional to use “race as a proxy to predict partisan behavior,” a statement that Justice Sonia Sotomayor adamantly concurred with. She stated that, “if the only way that you can satisfy yourself, for whatever your political reasons are, is by using race, that’s illegal.” Aden agreed, building on her case by citing the Cooper decision. Yet, with the precedent set by Rucho and the conservative affiliation of the majority of the Supreme Court Justices, the outcome of this case is uncertain. The fate of voting rights hangs in the balance, as this case will set the precedent for whether the Supreme Court will hear partisan defenses in racial gerrymandering cases. If the Court rules in favor of the appellate, it would become increasingly challenging to fight unfair congressional maps in future cases. Increased limitations on racial gerrymandering claims pose an immense threat to civil and voting rights, and, thus, our democracy. 

Gabriella Carter is from Martinsburg, West Virginia, studying Sociology, English, and Psychology

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