After the North Carolina General Assembly enacted a new legislative redistricting plan in 1982, several African American voters filed a federal lawsuit alleging that one single-member district and six multi-member districts were drawn to impair the ability of African American voters to elect candidates of their choice in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. After the plaintiffs filed suit, but before trial, Congress enacted the 1982 Amendments to the Voting Rights Act overturning the Court's ruling in City of Mobile v. Alabama by clarifying that a racial discrimination claim under Section 2 could be established by showing an election law has either a discriminatory purpose or a discriminatory effect. The 1982 Amendments also articulated a list of factors for courts to consider when evaluating whether an election law has a discriminatory effect under the "totality of circumstances."
In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court held that four of the state's multimember districts violated Section 2 and, in its unanimous opinion, the Court discussed the legal impact of the 1982 Amendments to the Voting Rights Act for the first time. Recognizing that multi-member districts have the potential to be used to dilute the voting strength of minority populations in certain situations, the Court articulated three preconditions that a plaintiff challenging multi-member districts under Section 2 must prove in order to prevail on their claim: First, the minority voting group is sufficiently large and geographically compact such that it could constitute a voting majority in a single-member district if it were drawn; Second, the minority group is politically cohesive (i.e. votes similarly); and Third, the majority racial group in the district usually votes as a bloc so as to defeat the minority's preferred candidate. Only after the plaintiff establishes these three conditions may the Court proceed to analyze whether, under the "totality of circumstances" factors in the 1982 VRA Amendments, the electoral and political process as challenged is equally open to minority voters. The Court also confirmed that pursuant to the 1982 Amendments, plaintiffs do not need to establish discriminatory intent or purpose to prevail on a vote dilution claim under Section 2. Applying those newly established standards to the facts and circumstances in this case, the Court found that in each of the offending districts there was a history of racially polarized voting; a legacy of official discrimination in voting matters, education, housing, employment, and health services; and consistent appeals by campaigns to racial prejudice, which acted in concert with the multi-member district scheme to impair the ability of African American voters to participate equally in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice.
Significance: Under the 1982 Amendments to the Voting Rights Act, Section 2 requires that multi-member districts be broken into minority single-member districts only where 3 pre-conditions are shown: (1) the minority group is sufficiently large and compact such that it can comprise the majority of a single-member district if drawn; (2) the minority group is politically cohesive, and (3) the majority usually votes as a block so as to defeat the minority's choice for representative. If all three preconditions are shown, the court must consider the totality of circumstances to determine whether the political process is equally open to minority voters. Plaintiffs no longer need to establish discriminatory intent or purpose to prevail on a vote dilution claim under Section 2.
U.S. Supreme Court - 478 U.S. 30 (1986)
- Opinion - 6/30/86