Reprint from BALLOTPEDIA
A majority-minority district is a district in which a racial minority group or groups comprise a majority of the district’s total population. As of 2015, the United States was home to 122 congressional majority-minority districts. This represented approximately 28 percent of the nation’s 435 House districts.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. The act was passed in 1965 with the intent of enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The act contains provisions that prohibit state and local governments from passing voting laws that result in discrimination against a racial group, such as enacting literacy tests and other devices that have historically been used to disenfranchise racial minorities.
In addition to the general provisions that apply nationally, the act also contains special provisions, such as Section 5, that apply only to specific jurisdictions. Section 5 prohibits certain districts from implementing any change in voting law without prior approval from the United States Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 United States Supreme Court case, struck down the coverage formula used to determine which jurisdictions were subject to Section 5 as unconstitutional, rendering Section 5 unenforceable.
A trio of amendments, in addition to civil rights laws, were passed after the Civil War that expanded citizenship and voting rights. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished and prohibited slavery and established a degree of citizenship for former slaves. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the nation’s first civil rights law. It declared all males born in the United States to be citizens, “without distinction of race or color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.” However, it did not offer any protection for voting rights. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, expanded citizenship, granting it to all people “born or naturalized in the United States.” The amendment also included the Equal Protection Clause, which provides that no state may deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law. However, the Fourteenth Amendment did not specifically address voting rights.
The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited voting rights discrimination on the basis of race. To enforce these amendments, Congress also passed the Enforcement Act in 1870. This act criminalized the obstruction of voting rights and provided for federal supervision of the electoral process. However, states continued to suppress black voters’ rights. Southern states legalized disenfranchisement in the form of Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, property requirements, and other laws designed to suppress black voter rights.
Civil rights movement
In the 1950s, the American civil rights movement sought increased protection of voting rights. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and later the Civil Rights Act of 1960. These acts allowed the attorney general to sue on behalf of those whose Fifteenth Amendment rights were violated, allowed federal courts to appoint referees to register voters in jurisdictions that had engaged in racial voting discrimination, and introduced penalties for anyone who obstructed someone’s voter registration or act of voting.
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) made Selma, Alabama, a focus of the voter rights campaign. Of Selma’s 15,000 eligible black voters, only 300 had managed to register, due to the state government’s opposition to black voter registration. King and the SCLC planned a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital city. A group of 600 people started the march on March 7, and were beaten back in an attack by Alabama state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas. The attack was televised and drew civil rights leaders to the town in protest.
In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for voter rights legislation. In a speech before Congress, he outlined how Southern states were denying black voters their rights under the Fifteenth Amendment. Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law, and hearings began on a voting rights bill soon after.
Johnson sent Congress a voting rights bill in March 1965. It was jointly sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D–Montana) and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R–Illinois). The bill received 66 sponsors in the Senate, and after amending by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was sent to the Senate floor. The bill passed the Senate 77-19 and was sent to the House of Representatives.
On August 3, 1965, the House of Representatives passed a stronger bill 328-74. A conference committee reconciled the two bills into one, which both bodies adopted in a vote of 336-88 in the House and 78-20 in the Senate. The bill was sent to Johnson, who signed it into law on August 6, 1965.
Johnson said the following in his signing statement:
The central fact of American civilization–one so hard for others to understand–is that freedom and justice and the dignity of man are not just words to us. We believe in them. Under all the growth and the tumult and abundance, we believe. And so, as long as some among us are oppressed–and we are part of that oppression–it must blunt our faith and sap the strength of our high purpose. Thus, this is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro. But it is also a victory for the freedom of the American Nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.
Non-permanent provisions of the Voting Rights Act, such as Sections 4 and 5, were renewed in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. In 1982, Congress amended Section 2 to declare that a plaintiff could establish a violation of Section 2 without having to prove discriminatory purpose.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race. Section 2 is a permanent section and does not need renewal.
Section 2 reads:
SEC. 2. No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.
The Supreme Court held in 1980 in the case Mobile v. Bolden that Section 2 is a restatement of the protections of the Fifteenth Amendment. Section 2, along with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, also prohibits jurisdictions from gerrymandering electoral districts to dilute the votes of racial minorities.
In 1982, Congress concluded that Section 2 should be amended to provide that a plaintiff could establish a violation of the section if the evidence established that, in the context of the “totality of the circumstance of the local electoral process,” the standard, practice, or procedure being challenged had the result of denying a racial or language minority an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
Sections 4 and 5
Section 4 provided a formula for identifying which jurisdictions had engaged in racial discrimination, and remedies to alleviate the discrimination. The first element in the formula was whether, on November 1, 1964, the jurisdiction maintained a “test or device” such as a literacy test restricting the opportunity to register and vote. The second element was whether less than 50 percent of persons of voting age were registered to vote on November 1, 1964, or that less than 50 percent of persons of voting age voted in the presidential election of November 1964. Jurisdictions identified under Section 4 were subject to Section 5. Section 4 was amended in 1982 to provide a method of “bail-out,” allowing a jurisdiction to seek to no longer be subject to Section 4 if they have eliminated the voting procedures that inhibited equal access to the electoral process.
Section 5 provides that the jurisdictions identified in Section 4 be subject to preclearance, which means that they must seek approval from the United States Attorney General of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia prior to making changes to their voting laws.
In 2010, Shelby County, Alabama, a jurisdiction subject to preclearance, sued the United States Attorney General, challenging Section 4(b) and 5 as unconstitutional. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in 2011 that the evidence before Congress in 2006 was sufficient to justify the re-authorization of Section 5 and the continued use of the formula in Section 4(b). Shelby County appealed. On May 18, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the previous decision, concluding that the use of Section 5 was still justified and that the coverage formula was still acceptable. Shelby County appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case on the question of “whether Congress’ decision in 2006 to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and thus violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution.”
On June 25, 2013, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) as unconstitutional, as it exceeded Congress’ power to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The majority, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, reasoned that the disparate treatment of the states was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day” and that a state cannot be subject to preclearance because of past discrimination. The court did not determine whether Section 5 is also unconstitutional. However, because Section 5 only applies to jurisdictions covered by 4(b), Section 5 is effectively rendered inoperable unless Section 4(b) is replaced.
Impact on redistricting
States and other political subdivisions may create majority-minority districts in order to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. A majority-minority district is a district in which minority groups comprise a majority of the district’s total population.
Proponents of majority-minority districts maintain that these districts are a necessary hindrance to the practice of cracking. Cracking occurs when a constituency is divided between several districts in order to prevent it from achieving a majority in any one district. In addition, supporters argue that the drawing of majority-minority districts has resulted in an increased number of minority representatives in state legislatures and Congress.
Some critics, meanwhile, contend that the establishment of majority-minority districts results in “packing.” Packing occurs when a constituency or voting group is placed within a single district, thereby minimizing its influence in other districts. Because minority groups tend to vote Democratic, critics argue that majority-minority districts ultimately present an unfair advantage to Republicans by consolidating Democratic votes into a smaller number of districts.