Overview of the Case
On October 11, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a key voting rights case - Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. This case, which challenges the constitutionality of the new congressional map in South Carolina due to claims of racial gerrymandering, has far reaching implications locally and nationally with the impending 2024 election cycle.
Every decade, legislative districts across the United States are redrawn to reflect the new census data. After the 2020 census, the ACLU and the South Carolina NAACP argued that South Carolina’s 1st congressional district was redrawn by the state’s Republican-led legislature to be more Republican-leaning. They claim that over 30,000 African-American residents in Charleston (62% of voters in the county) from the 1st congressional district were relocated to a neighboring district, while conservative counties were added to the district. This strategic change made the 1st district more Republican-leaning, seeing as 90% of Black voters in South Carolina identify as Democrat.
The process of redrawing electoral district boundaries to marginalize a specific demographic of voters is called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is an extremely contentious and frowned upon practice. However, in Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that federal courts could not prevent gerrymandering for partisan aims. But, it is important to note, that under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantee, gerrymandering driven by racial motivations remains unconstitutional. As the Supreme Court held in Cooper v. Harris (2017), “the sorting of voters on the grounds of their race remains suspect even if race is meant to function as a proxy for other (including political) characteristics.” The central question in this case is whether South Carolina Republicans violated the U.S. constitution when they redrew the lines for the 1st congressional district. The South Carolina Republicans defended their electoral map by stating their partisan intentions while disavowing claims of race as a motivating factor.
Lower Court Ruling
In January, a federal three-judge panel ruled that Republicans had undertaken an “effective bleaching” of the district, deliberately sorting voters along racial lines, thereby reducing the influence of Black voters. Furthermore, the panel ruled that map unconstitutional and in direct violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which guarantee equal protection under the law and prohibit race-based voting discrimination. The panel ordered South Carolina to redraw its 2022 congressional map, but the lawmakers appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
To win, the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP must prove that race was the motivating factor in the congressional map’s design and clearly distinguish race from partisan intent. During oral arguments, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito remained skeptical that the challengers had carried the burden of disentangling race from politics as they argued that there was no direct evidence, only circumstantial evidence, that race was a motivating factor in the construction of electoral maps. To accept such ‘circumstantial evidence’ “would be breaking new ground in our voting rights jurisprudence” according to the Chief Justice.
However, precedent set in Cooper v. Harris (2017) determines that the “lower court’s findings of fact — most notably, as to whether racial considerations predominated in drawing district lines — are subject to review only for clear error.” The Supreme Court is supposed to defer to the trial court’s factural findings regarding how and why an electoral map was constructed.
Antonio Ingram, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) stated, “This is about Black voters not having champions in their own communities that are responsive to their needs that are influenced by their electoral power to really advocate for federal allocation of resources without things that will improve their quality of life.” With the current electoral map, Black voters along the coast will struggle to find representation for issues like climate change and other geographically important issues.
A decision to reverse the lower court’s decision would be a major win for state republicans, who are looking to increase republican voters in the state. On the contrary, a decision to require the state to redraw the map would make the first congressional district more competitive for Democrats in the state. Ahead of the 2024 congressional elections, the competitive nature of the first district could challenge the balance of power as Democrats are looking to pick up seats in order to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Republicans.
Additionally, the verdict of this case could have serious implications on voting rights moving forward. In recent years, the Court’s Republican majority has maintained a hostile position on voting rights, often fabricating new legal rules in order to weaken laws protecting the right to vote. There are also a number of ongoing redistricting/gerrymandering disputes throughout the country. A ruling in favor of South Carolina’s redistricting approach would incentivise lawmakers in other states to adopt similar strategies, using partisanship as a pretext for unconstitutionally moving voters along racial lines. Therefore, resulting in a more racially polarized approach to voting.