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The redistricting case headed to the Supreme Court is all about race

A voter on Alabama's primary day in 2012.
A voter on Alabama's primary day in 2012.
Win McNamee, Getty Images News

Monday morning, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case on whether Alabama's state legislative districts have been racially gerrymandered. The plaintiffs in this case — the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference — argue that the state's new maps unfairly pack black voters into too few districts. Yet the new maps contain nearly the same number of majority-black districts as the previous ones did. So why did one black state senator say the redistricting meant "Alabama is going backwards, to the racist Ku Klux times"?

The issue: Fewer integrated districts

The main Democratic objection is that more black voters have been moved out of majority-white districts — and that the new districts are therefore more racially segregated, rather than integrated. Traditionally, gerrymandering is done by packing voters from certain groups into very few districts. This dilutes the group's voting power below where it should be based on how much of the overall population it composes.

For example, if there are several districts with lopsided black majorities, that might mean fewer majority-black districts in total — and fewer black voters in majority-white districts. The consequence of this packing is that fewer candidates preferred by black voters are elected overall.

This is particularly significant for Alabama's Democrats — because before 2010, the state's Democrats regularly relied on coalitions of white and minority voters to elect legislative majorities. They could only do this because there were several relatively integrated racial districts — districts that were majority-white, but had substantial minority populations too.

In 2010, the GOP took over Alabama's legislature for the first time since 1874, and got control of the redistricting process. While redistricting, Republicans adopted a very particular racial standard for redrawing majority-black districts. They decided that each one must contain the same percentage of black voters, or more, as were within its preexisting borders.

The results were that more black voters were moved into the existing majority-black districts — and out of majority-white ones. Republicans argued that they adopted this standard to comply with the Voting Rights Act and protect black representation — but Democrats scoffed. "They are trying to make white Democrats extinct," said Roger Bedford, then the Democratic Senate leader. "They are packing the black districts."

The overall result, as Tom Edsall wrote, was that there were fewer integrated districts. In the five most-integrated majority-white Senate districts, the average percentage of minority voters dropped from 35.9 percent to 29.5 percent. Meanwhile, there are only two somewhat-integrated state house districts remaining, with minority populations of 32 percent and 34.5 percent each. The new maps "minimize the potential of coalitions between a minority of white voters and a solid core of black voters," Edsall wrote. "Under these circumstances, white Republican voting blocs remain dominant." Alabama will hold its first general elections using the new maps this fall.

The case

The plaintiffs' prospects initially looked dim. Indeed, Obama's Justice Department signed off on the new boundaries in October 2012 — giving its opinion that the maps didn't violate the Voting Rights Act. They did so because the number of majority-black districts was comparable to the proportion of black voters in Alabama's population. And late last year, a district court panel sided with the state, upholding the maps in a 2-1 decision.

Yet Myron Thompson, the only black judge on the panel and a Jimmy Carter appointee, dissented — and he zeroed in on the process that Alabama Republicans used to redistrict. "The drafters sifted residents by race across the State of Alabama in order to achieve for each district, wherever possible, what I believe can only be characterized as naked 'racial quotas,'" Thompson wrote.

This is an argument that could theoretically appeal to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who has been hostile to racial quotas overall. In a previous decision, Roberts wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Now, the Supreme Court may determine whether Alabama's method was constitutional. The Court will hear arguments this fall.

Correction: The panel of judges mentioned above was from a district court, not an appellate court.