Since its enactment in 1965, the Voting Rights Act has given birth to countless Supreme Court cases. Particularly nettlesome has been the question of how to draw lines for legislative districts in a way that appropriately factors in race.
Once again, the issue sits before the high court. But this time, in a case being argued Tuesday over state Senate districts in Georgia, there is a twist: The state's Democrats - the party of choice for the vast majority of African-Americans - want to reduce the concentrations of black voters in some predominantly black districts, in the hope that those voters will help elect Democrats in other, whiter districts. And it is Republicans who are styling themselves as champions of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that the plan could jeopardize black-held seats.
At root is partisan politics, in a state that was once solidly Democratic but now features aggressive two-party competition. Last November, Georgia elected its first Republican governor in 130 years.
But the case goes beyond Georgia. It has ramifications for the nine states mostly in the South, and parts of seven others required by the Voting Rights Act to gain federal approval for redrawn districts.
Broadly put, the case shows how after nearly 40 years, the Voting Rights Act has turned a corner. Conceived to ensure minority access to the polls and to boost minority representation in government, the act has ushered in remarkable progress. But it has also served to concentrate minority voters - who tend to vote Democratic - in electoral districts, contributing to the resurgence of the Republican Party in the South.
Pamela Karlan, an election-law specialist at Stanford University in California, boils the question down this way: "How will the Democratic Party, when it is controlling redistricting, be permitted to negotiate the kind of tricky ground between complying with the Voting Rights Act and also protecting its own political strength?"
In their plan, the Democratic-controlled Georgia legislature proposed shifting the lines of 12 majority-black state Senate districts so they would have lower percentages of black voters. The US Justice Department rejected the plan for three of the districts, arguing it could diminish minority voting strength in those districts and reduce "the minority's opportunity to elect representatives of its choice."
The Justice Department cites evidence of "racially polarized voting" - a strong tendency of whites to vote for whites and blacks to vote for blacks - in those three districts.
The state of Georgia - represented by Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who is, ironically, African-American - argues that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act does not prevent a state from adopting a plan that reduces "packed" concentrations of black voters "so long as it preserves equal or fair opportunities for minorities to elect candidates of choice."
In its argument, the state put forth a statistical analysis that showed that the point of "equal opportunity" is a 44.3 percent black voting-age population. The Department of Justice rejected the statistical method used in that report.
The state's Democratic-backed plan would reduce black voting-age populations in the three disputed districts from large majorities of over 55 percent to just a hair over 50 percent. The state argues that the lower-court ruling, which it is appealing, would dictate a "ratcheting up" process, whereby states would "ultimately be required to have as many supermajority, safe [black] districts as possible."
The Justice Department argues that the fact it approved nine other new state Senate districts with reduced black voting-age populations shows that's not the case.
A group called the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda - representing major civil liberties and African-American organizations - oppose the Georgia redistricting plan. In a friend-of-the-court brief, they argue: "The State of Georgia's proposed 'equal opportunity,' or 50-50 chance of winning, standard for Section 5 preclearance would, if adopted, have a devastating impact on minority office holding and voting rights... (T)he number of blacks elected to the legislature would likely be cut in half."
Four so-called "intervenors," private citizens from the districts in question - two Democratic, two Republican, all of them black - agree that the plan would diminish black voting clout in Georgia.
Black incumbent politicians in Georgia testified in favor of the plan, saying that Georgia had changed. But opponents say that evidence of racially polarized voting in those three districts requires that they maintain higher percentages of black voters. They cite testimony from the state's demographer, who said that most of the black state senators went along with the plan because if the Democrats lost control of the state House and Senate, any committee chairmanships held by blacks would be lost.
Laughlin McDonald, an ACLU voting-rights lawyer in Atlanta and author of the Georgia Coalition brief, acknowledges that in some areas, polarization is not as extreme as it used to be. "But Georgia is still as bad as any state in the South for opposition to the Voting Rights Act, and they're all bad," adds Mr. McDonald, author of a new book, "A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia."