The Backstory
Last summer, Joan Biskupic of Reuters delved into one of the most fascinating and overlooked aspects of Shelby County: the characters and agendas behind it. As she reports, the case dates back to 2008, when the Shelby County city of Calera held municipal elections using a new district map that hadn’t been vetted by the Justice Department (a flagrant violation of Section 5). The result? Calera’s lone black city council member lost his seat. The Justice Department later found that the city’s gerrymandering hurt minority voters and voided the election results, after which the districts were rejiggered again.

The saga might have ended there if it weren’t for a conservative activist named Edward Blum, who happened upon the Calera case on the Justice Department Web site. As Biskupic writes:

A former investment banker, Blum had been challenging race-based policies since 1992, when he lost an election for Congress in a racially drawn Houston district. His case against Texas officials over the line-drawing went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1996 the court ruled the district unconstitutional. Since then Blum, thin, angular, with a formal presence, has sought out government programs that he believes wrongly use racial criteria.

Blum struck up a dialogue with the city of Calera’s lawyer and eventually tapped Shelby County as a test case for challenging the constitutionality of Section 5. Why Shelby County? As it turns out, Blum had initially chosen an Austin, Texas utility district as his stalking-horse plaintiff. But when that case reached the Supreme Court in 2009, the justices punted on the question of Section 5’s constitutionality and instead made it easier for states and municipalities with clean track records (including the utility district) to get out of the preclearance requirement. As Biskupic notes, Shelby County’s record of voting-rights violations—particularly the Calera redistricting ordeal—meant the case “could not get tossed out on the same technicality.” But it also cast doubt on the notion that Section 5 had outlived its usefulness.

Lou Dubose of The Washington Spectator and Janell Ross of The Huffington Post have also done excellent work on the Shelby County backstory.

The Unintended Consequences
Under the Voting Rights Act, minorities living in regions covered by Section 5 are usually concentrated into a handful of districts where they make up the bulk of the electorate. The idea is to ensure that blacks and Hispanics have the critical mass to elect candidates who represent their ethnicity and interests.

But as Shannon McCaffrey and Daniel Malloy of the Journal-Constitution report , in part two of the paper’s Voting Rights Act series, the system has had some unwelcome side effects.

Most importantly, as minorities (who tend to vote Democratic) are shoehorned into designated districts, the surrounding ones become whiter and more Republican—a trend McCaffrey and Shannon maintain has led to political polarization and fed the “sharp partisanship that has tied the nation’s government in knots.”

Politico and Slate have also reported on the downsides of so-called minority-majority districts, and their findings are equally illuminating.


THE REPORTER’S TOOLKIT


Below are some useful tools and resources for reporters trying to cut through the he-said/she-said verbiage on this issue and shed light on the ramifications of the coming Shelby County ruling.

-Access to the ballot box. The most recent data from Pew Research Center suggests that few Americans of any race have problems casting ballots. Indeed, in Pew’s post-2012-election poll, only 4 percent of whites and 2 percent of blacks answered yes to the question: “Did you have any problems or difficulties voting this year, or not?” As Pew’s director Andrew Kohut explained in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:

There were accusations leveled during the 2012 presidential campaign that black turnout was being discouraged in Florida and other key states by voter ID laws or attempts at deception or intimidation. Given these charges, Pew went a step further in the 2012 post-election survey than in previous surveys by asking voters if they knew anyone who tried to vote but could not. Blacks more often said they did than whites—14% versus 9%. But a follow-up question, “Why were those people not able to vote?” revealed that this difference was entirely accounted for by the fact that unlike whites, 6% of blacks reported knowing felons who tried to vote but could not.

The absence of a racial gap in reports of voting difficulties is consistent with a clear and persistent increase in African-American turnout since the mid-1990s. Post-election analysis by Pew and by the U.S. Census indicate that in 2012—for the first time in history—blacks voted at a higher rate, 66% (of age-eligible black citizens), than whites, 64% (of age-eligible white citizens).

Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications.