Court Refuses to Expand Minority Voting Rights

Mark Sherman, AP, March 9, 2009

The Supreme Court limited the reach of the Voting Rights Act on Monday, a decision that could make it harder for some minority candidates to win election when voting districts are redrawn.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that a portion of the law aimed at helping minorities elect their preferred candidates only applies in districts where minorities make up more than half the population.

The decision could make it more difficult for Democrats, particularly in the South and Southwest, to draw electoral boundaries friendly to black or Hispanic candidates following the 2010 Census.

With the court’s conservatives in the majority, the court ruled that North Carolina erred when trying to preserve the influence of African-American voters even though they made up just 39 percent of the population in a state legislative district.

While not a majority, the black voters were numerous enough to effectively determine the outcome of elections, the state argued in urging the court to extend the civil rights law’s provision to the district.

The state said the district should be protected by the section of the law that bars states from reducing the chance for minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, announcing the court’s judgment, said the court had never extended the law to those so-called crossover districts and would not do so now. The 50 percent rule “draws clear lines for courts and legislatures alike,” Kennedy said in ruling against the North Carolina district.

In 2007, the North Carolina Supreme Court had struck down the district, saying the Voting Rights Act applies only to districts with a numerical majority of minority voters. The district also violated a provision of the state constitution keeping district boundaries from crossing county lines, the court said.

Kennedy said that, absent prohibitions like North Carolina’s rule against crossing county lines, “states that wish to draw crossover districts are free to do so.” But they are not required, he said.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito signed onto Kennedy’s opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome of the case.

The four liberal justices dissented. {snip}

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In April, the court will hear a more significant challenge to another provision of the Voting Rights Act, requiring all or parts of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination to get approval before implementing any changes in how elections are held.

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The cases are Bartlett v. Strickland, 07-689, and Brewer v. Nader, 08-648.

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