Winning the fight against gerrymandering in the South

Voting rights activists in a number of Southern states have taken state and federal election district maps to court in recent years — and the cases are going their way. (Modified image by Jared Rodriguez of Truthout.)

After the wave of Tea Party victories across the nation turned more state legislatures red in 2010, Republican lawmakers redistricted their states to the party's benefit. In some cases, Democratic voters — often African-American — were packed into a small number of districts, diluting their political power.
Not long ago, Shelby County, Alabama successfully challenged the section of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states and counties with a history of racial voting discrimination to submit any proposed election law changes — including new voting district maps — to the federal government for approval. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder enabled states, most of them in the South, to change voting districts without federal consent.
Since then, voting rights activists have challenged the new gerrymandered district maps in court — and they're winning. In this year's primary, voters in Florida and likely in Virginia will cast ballots from districts redrawn to be less partisan and more fair. Meanwhile, legal battles continue over voting maps in Alabama and North Carolina after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered lower courts to reexamine districts there.
At the same time, efforts are underway in some states to reform the redistricting process to make it less partisan. 
Here is a rundown of the latest developments across the region:
FLORIDA. The Florida legislature redrew state and congressional electoral districts in 2012, creating maps that represented one of the most effective gerrymanders for the GOP nationwide.
But two years earlier, Florida voters had amended the state constitution to prohibit lawmakers from drawing districts that favor either a party or incumbents. So a coalition of voting rights advocates led by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida challenged the new maps in court, setting off a legal fight that lasted four years and cost taxpayers $11 million. 
In its eighth ruling on matter, the Florida Supreme Court approved maps drawn by the challengers, which will be used in this year's primary elections. Though the GOP-led legislature is not appealing the ruling, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Florida) is challenging the newly drawn boundaries of her once "serpentine" 5th District, asserting that they would no longer result in a black representative. 
In hopes of preventing future legal battles over partisan voting maps, Florida state Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D) has proposed a bill that would amend the state constitution to create an independent redistricting commission that would draw congressional and state districts.
VIRGINIA. A federal court ruled twice that the state's GOP-led legislature, as part of its 2012 redistricting plan, violated the U.S. Constitution by packing African Americans into the 3rd Congressional District, diluting their influence elsewhere. Earlier this month, that same court selected a map submitted by a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine, which will add more black voters to the 4th District. Democrats are now expected to pick up one of the state's congressional seats. 
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of the lower court's ruling. With the congressional primary filing deadline on March 31, there's still a chance a new map could be in effect for the June 14 primary election. 
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Virginia legislators has proposed creating an independent redistricting commission. 
ALABAMA. Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a lower court ruling that upheld Alabama's 2010 state legislative redistricting plan. As in Virginia, Alabama officials packed black voters into a few legislative districts, boosting white power elsewhere.
The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus challenged the maps. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sent the maps back to the lower court for reconsideration. That court has yet to issue its ruling. But last August it asked the plaintiffs to draw up an alternative voting district plan. 
NORTH CAROLINA. After the Republican-controlled North Carolina state legislature redrew state and congressional voting districts in 2011, former state Rep. Margaret Dickson (D) filed suit along with organizations including the state NAACP and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, alleging that lawmakers had overloaded certain districts with black voters, diminishing their overall voting power. Three of the nation's 10 most gerrymandered congressional districts are in North Carolina.
After the state Supreme Court approved the maps, the plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Citing its earlier ruling on the Alabama districts, the high court sent North Carolina's maps back to the state Supreme Court, instructing it to reexamine whether the Republican-controlled legislature relied too heavily on race. But the state Supreme Court upheld the districts for a second time in December, and the case will again be appealed to the U.S. high court. 
Two other redistricting lawsuits that also challenge North Carolina voting districts as racial gerrymanders are pending in federal courts. Harris v. McCrory, filed in October 2013 by two law firms on behalf of three North Carolina voters, challenges the congressional districts. Covington v. North Carolina, filed in May 2015 by lawyers with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and two law firms on behalf of a number of North Carolina voters, challenges the state legislative districts. 
GEORGIA. Democratic legislators in Georgia have also proposed legislation that would create an independent redistricting commission to redraw state and congressional districts more fairly. 
Progress towards fairer voting districts is not limited to the South: In the upcoming November elections, South Dakota voters will decide whether to establish an independent redistricting commission, and a similar referendum in Illinois is likely. In Maryland, a governor-appointed commission proposed the creation of an independent redistricting board, and legislators in Colorado are weighing such a commission as well. 
President Obama echoed voting rights advocates' calls for a fairer redistricting process in his State of the Union this month. "We've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around," he said. "Let a bipartisan group do it."