When he left Congress in 1901, George White, an African American Republican from Tarboro, North Carolina, announced that it was “perhaps the Negro’s temporary farewell to Congress.” Mr. White’s premonition was right. Voters from North Carolina would not send another African American to Congress until 1992, nearly a century later, when Melvin Watt and Eva Clayton were elected from two majority-black districts. Their elections were made possible by the Voting Rights Act (“VRA” or “the Act”), which is widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, and has proven to be one of the most successful federal civil rights statutes, if not statutes of any kind, in American history.
But last term, the VRA came under attack on numerous fronts. Much attention4 has been paid to Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder (“NAMUDNO”), an unsuccessful challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Act. However, with the spotlight focused so intently on NAMUDNO, a pivotal case arising from North Carolina concerning the reach of another crucial provision of the VRA, has not received sufficient attention.
In Bartlett v. Strickland, a fractured Supreme Court narrowly construed the protections of Section 2 of the Act as imposing a bright-line rule regarding when parties can state a claim for minority vote dilution. Specifically, a minority group must be capable of constituting a numerical majority of the voting-age population in a geographically compact area before Section 2 requires the creation of an electoral district to prevent dilution of that group’s votes. With its ruling in Bartlett, the Court conclusively answered a question that it had avoided on four previous occasions. In doing so, the Court prohibited North Carolina, a state that had previously gone nearly a century without an African American representative in Congress, from voluntarily preserving an election district that had reliably provided its African American residents with an opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.