US Supreme Court


Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued a historic and somewhat unexpected decision that upheld both the Voting Rights Act and election science. In Allen vs. Milligan, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, and Sonia Sotomayor, rejected the State of Alabama’s argument that only “racially blind” redistricting methods answer to the constitutional requirements of racial neutrality. As a result of this decision, Alabama and several other states (Georgia, Louisiana, possibly Texas) will likely be required to redraw congressional and/or state legislative districts.

This is a landmark case with much to unpack, and I will have more to say in the future (particularly on the Court’s ongoing struggle to reconcile the principles of proportionality and political equality), but what is immediately noteworthy is the central role that electoral science played in the outcome of this case, and the possibility that the Court’s interpretation of this science will shape future Rights Act cases. of voting. Importantly, the High Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of what is known as the Gingles test for identifying and correcting racial discrimination in the redistricting, which surprised most electoral law scholars and suffrage advocates nationwide.

Fair application of scientific standards

First, the High Court upheld the scientific standards used to analyze racial vote dilution, leading the majority to a fair decision. Second, the use of a specific method, namely algorithmically generated mapping simulationsplayed a central role in all opinions issued by the Court, which set clear limits to their application.

It may seem unusual to point this out, but I am not the only observer who was surprised to see this supreme court squarely address the issue before it through such a straightforward application of established scientific standards and analysis.

For background: Gingles testestablished in the 1986 racial vote dilution case Thornburg vs. Gingles, is a three-pronged test the Court has developed to determine whether a constituency plan violates section two of the Voting Rights Act:

“First of all, [the] ‘minority group’ [whose interest the plaintiff represents] must be “sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority” in a reasonably configured legislative district. Second, the minority group must be “politically coherent”. And third, a district’s white majority must “vote enough as a block” to generally “beat the preferred minority candidate.” [Cooper v. Harris, 581 U. S. 285, 301–302]

The establishment of the Gingles test represented a major step forward in voting rights litigation. It offers an evidence-based framework through which racially polarized voting can be demonstrated, and it shows how altering the proportion of like-minded voters within district boundaries can alter election outcomes by diluting the strength of votes of targeted voters.

The Alabama legislature’s decision to remove one of two African-American opportunity districts from their Congressional delegation by dividing the black belt population in the southern part of the state was a pretty clear case of dilution of the vote. Alabama’s argument in Allen vs. Milligan was fundamentally a challenge to this test that the Court has relied on for nearly four decades. Alabama had argued that the use of racial demographic and electoral data in the Gingles test unconstitutionally made race predominant factor in determining the results of the redistribution. The Court’s response to the challenge was unambiguous. He ruled that Alabama’s approach would require abandoning that precedent and reversing the interpretation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as set forth in nearly a dozen lawsuits. previous cases. As the majority put it: “We refuse to take this step.

For suffrage advocates, the decision came as a pleasant surprise. As election scholar Guy-Uriel E. Charles has noted: “It’s been so long since I’ve expected a majority of the Court to fairly apply its prior voting rights precedents, interprets the VRA without malice and read it honestly note that I forgot what it looks like.

Chief Justice Roberts was clearly opposed to the kind of legal upheaval that Alabama’s reinterpretation of the voting rights law would have produced. Instead, it is the first time the Roberts Court has made a decision that requires the drawing of a new minority opportunity district.


At least for now, science and justice have prevailed.

I say “for now” because, while the majority opinion reaffirmed that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “requires consideration of race”, since the question of whether other majority-minority districts can be drawn necessarily involves an “essentially race-sensitive calculation”. Justice Kavanaugh disagreed with this section of the decision. He asserted in his view that “the power to redistrict on the basis of race cannot extend into the future indefinitely”. Furthermore, the majority opinion made it clear that this decision, far from expanding voting rights, anticipates a reduction in voting rights disputes. The Majority wrote: “As residential segregation declines – as it has done ‘strongly’ since the 1970s – it becomes more difficult to meet traditional demarcation criteria such as the requirement of compactness”.

Appropriate limits on the application of map simulations

Chief Justice Roberts is not a fan of math. In 2017, during the pleadings in the partisan gerrymandering case Gill vs. Whitford, the Chief Justice called methods for estimating partisan vote dilution (including one proposed by my research team) “sociological gibberish.” Yesterday’s opinion also criticized the use of sets of algorithmically generated constituency maps as a way to assess valid alternatives.

The opinion rightly notes one of the main limitations of the approach. Citing amicus briefs from computer scientists who note that it is “effectively impossible to generate a complete enumeration of all potential district plans”, the Supreme Court rejected the claim that a large number, or a large number any, sets of maps could constitute an accurate reflection. of what the actual distribution of all possible cards might be.

This is an important clarification, as it is intuitive for a judge (and even some statisticians) to look at a “normal” distribution of simulated cards and see outliers as evidence of an “abnormal” card or intentionally biased, for example. But since the 1960s, when mapping algorithms were first developed, it has been known that automated algorithms cannot be relied upon to impartially explore the landscape of possible legal redistricting plans.

Lower courts should take note. Alabama took the misguided reliance on automated algorithms a step further, saying their so-called “blind” simulations (i.e. excluding racial data) should be used as a benchmark for maps that are, by their circular definition, racially neutralon the false premise that racial blindness is the equivalent of racial neutrality in generating riding maps.

That’s not to say sets aren’t an important technology. Sets are particularly useful for revealing the consequences of specific trade-offs incorporated into the redistricting process. The process must try to balance conflicting criteria: contiguity, population equality, compactness, competition with other governmental boundaries, respect for communities of interest and, as computer scientist Moon Duchin explained as expert in the case, the “non-negotiable” criterion. political equality, that is, equally weighted votes, for those who are protected by the suffrage law.

In this case, at least, the science prevailed, preserving Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and supporting the federal government’s obligation to protect voters from racial discrimination, as required by 15e Amendment.Allen is a historic decision with much more to unfold, but today science advocates and democracy advocates across the country have reason to celebrate.

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