South Carolina District Court Dismisses Challenge to New Redistricting Scheme
Rebecca L. Tsai | Bloomberg Law
After a decade of substantial population growth, South Carolina’s election districts became obsolete. Consequently, the state’s General Assembly enacted a new redistricting plan, which was signed into law by the Governor and granted preclearance by the U.S. Department of Justice. In November 2011, the redistricting plan was challenged in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) and the Fourteenthand Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The Court first considered plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment gerrymandering claim, explaining that “[t]he essence of a racial gerrymandering claim is that states may not use race as the predominant factor in separating voters into districts.” Nevertheless, it observed, race may be considered, as long as it is not the predominant reason underlying the redistricting plan.
Here, plaintiffs failed to establish that race was the predominant factor because they were unable to show that (1) the district lines were “so bizarre or highly irregular on their face” that they must have been “an effort to separate voters based on race”; (2) the legislature “subordinated traditional race-neutral redistricting principles to race”; or (3) “any legislative purpose indicating that race was the predominant factor.”
While plaintiffs alleged that the district lines were “irregular and bizarre,” defendants countered that they were based in large part on existing political boundaries. In comparing the new lines with the preexisting ones, the Court found that the revised districts were “not so bizarre or highly irregular on their face that race can be the only rational explanation for them.”
As to the second point, plaintiffs’ expert testified that race had been the predominant factor in formulating the district lines. He admitted, however, that he did not take into account the guidelines and criteria followed by the General Assembly, which included “contiguity, compactness, protection of communities of interest, and incumbency protection.” The Court was therefore “unconvinced” by his testimony.
With respect to legislative purpose, plaintiffs offered the testimony of several legislators, all of whom opined that “an African-American candidate of choice can be elected in particular districts without the district being a majority-minority district.” While the testimony indicated that race had been considered by the General Assembly, it nonetheless failed to establish that race was the predominant factor. The gerrymandering claim therefore was dismissed.
Voting Rights Act
Section 2 of the VRA provides that states may not employ electoral voting procedures that “result in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” As a prerequisite to finding a violation of Section 2, a plaintiff must establish three elements: “(1) [t]he minority group must be sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district, (2) the minority group must be politically cohesive, and (3) the majority must vote sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.” (Internal quotations and alteration omitted.) Here, however, plaintiffs failed to show that minorities “would form a majority in a potential election district but for the challenged districting practice.” The Court thus dismissed the Section 2 claim.
The Court then turned to the Fourteenth Amendment vote dilution claim. To succeed on a vote dilution claim, one must establish that “the districting scheme has a discriminatory effect and the legislature acted with a discriminatory purpose.” The Court found, however, that plaintiffs showed only that the black voting age population had increased in certain districts according to the redistricting plan and not that the increase diluted the voting strength of minority voters. Accordingly, it dismissed the vote dilution claim.
Lastly, the Court dismissed plaintiffs’ Fifteenth Amendment vote dilution and racial gerrymandering claims. As it explained, it was “unclear whether vote dilution claims are cognizable under the Fifteenth Amendment,” and to the extent that they exist, they are “essentially congruent with vote-dilution claims under the Fourteenth Amendment.” Since plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment vote dilution failed, the Fifteenth Amendment one must fail as well. The gerrymandering claim was also dismissed, as plaintiffs failed to show that they were denied the ability to vote.
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