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Voting Rights: Are Further Restrictions on the Way?
Statement of Laughlin McDonald, Director, ACLU Voting Rights Project
For IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 27, 1993
WASHINGTON -- On the first day of the 1993 Term, the Supreme Court will
hear arguments in three voting rights cases from Florida and one from
Georgia. The Florida cases, which have been consolidated and which involve
the 1992 redistricting of the state House and Senate, are Johnson v.
DeGrandy, DeGrandy v. Johnson, and United States v. Florida. The case from
Georgia, Holder v. Hall which was brought by the American Civil Liberties
Union, is a challenge to the unique sole commissioner form of government
in Bleckley County.
The pending cases take on special significance because they are the first
voting cases to reach the Court since the decision from last Term in Shaw
v. Reno, arguably the most controversial voting rights decision of the
decade. In Shaw, the Court held that white residents of North Carolina
could challenge the state's majority African American 12th Congressional
district where it was alleged to be "so bizarre on its face that it is
'unexplainable on grounds other than race."' Although the holding of the
case is quite narrow -- few, if any, districts are as irregularly shaped
as the 12th -- it established for the first time a federal cause of action
under the Fourteenth Amendment based on district shape and opened the door
for opponents of equal voting rights to question the propriety of all
The Florida and Georgia cases provide the Justices who formed the majority
in Shaw v. Reno with an opportunity to further restrict the scope of the
Voting Rights Act and to check the substantial gains in minority political
participation and office holding that have occurred since the amendment of
the act in 1982, which facilitated voting rights challenges by adopting a
discriminatory "results" standard for proving violations.
The Florida cases involve challenges by Hispanic plaintiffs and the United
States to the redistricting of the state House and Senate, and by the
NAACP to the redistricting of the Senate. The issues are whether the
state's plan violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and whether the
state should have drawn an additional Hispanic and an additional black
Senate district in the Miami-Dade area, and two additional Hispanic
districts in the Miami-Dade County area for the House.
The three judge court found that the plaintiffs proved the plans for the
House and Senate violated Section 2. As a remedy, it ordered into effect a
new plan for the House containing two additional majority Hispanic
districts. It declined to order a new plan for the Senate because it
believed that drawing an additional Hispanic district would harm black
voters and that drawing an additional black district would harm Hispanic
voters. Thus, the case also presents the issue of reconciling the
competing interests of two minority groups.
The Hispanic plaintiffs and the United States appealed the Senate case on
the grounds that they had proposed a plan for the Senate that would have
provided one additional Hispanic and one additional black district, but
which the three judge court failed adequately to consider. The House
defendants appealed the House case on the grounds that Section 2 did not
require the state to maximize the number of minority-controlled
The House defendants also contend that in determining adequacy of
representation the court should have looked at the minority population in
the Dade County area only, rather than the state as a whole, and that
non-citizens should not be counted. The ACLU believes that the district
court should have adopted the proposed plan providing additional
representation to both minorities.
In the Georgia case, Holder v. Hall, the African American plaintiffs
contend that the use of the at-large elected sole commissioner form of
government for Bleckley County dilutes their voting strength. The sole
commissioner exercises all the legislative and executive powers of county
government and is unique to the state of Georgia. All the other states use
multi-member county governing authorities. Even in Georgia, the sole
commissioner is the exception. Only 17 of the state's 159 counties use the
sole commissioner form. The rest use multi-member boards, with five
members being the most common size.
According to the plaintiffs, the sole commissioner system is essentially a
plantation form of government that denies blacks, who are 22 percent of
the county's population, the equal opportunity to elect any county-wide
legislative or executive positions.
In upholding plaintiffs vote dilution claim, the court of appeals found
that blacks in Bleckley County were geographically compact, politically
cohesive and that the candidates of their choice were usually defeated by
a bloc voting white majority. It further ruled that any remedy "could well
be modeled" after the existing five single-member district plan for the
county board of education.
The sole question now before the Supreme Court is whether the single
county commissioner "is subject to challenge as dilutive under Section 2."
Defendants contend that a vote dilution theory has no application to a
single-member office. It is the ACLU's position that a true single-member
office is one that exercises predominantly executive powers and that has
never been regarded as being divisible, such as a mayor or speaker of the
House. The Bleckley County Commission, by contrast, exercises all the
legislative powers of government and under state law may contain up to 12
members. Under these circumstances the ACLU believes, and the Court of
Appeals held, that the principles of the Voting Rights Act can and should
The Voting Rights Act is widely regarded as the most successful civil
rights act in our nation's history. It is not an exaggeration to say that
the fate of the Act and continued progress in minority political
participation could be determined in large measure by the Court's
decisions in the cases it has already agreed to hear this Term.
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