Supreme Court Limits Redistricting Provision of Voting Rights Act

Supreme Court Limits Redistricting Provision of Voting Rights Act

Thursday, March 12, 2009




Supreme Court Limits Redistricting Provision of Voting Rights Act

This week the US Supreme Court ruled on the scope of the minority vote dilution component (section 2) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  In doing so the court interpreted the VRA to only protect the voting power of minority groups when they constitute a majority of the electorate in a legislative district.  This ruling makes the requirements of section 2 significantly narrower then the defendant in the case, the chief elections official for the state of North Carolina, had believed it to be.  

North Carolina had broken its own constitution's requirement that legislative districts respect county boundaries in order to avoid diminishing the concentration of African-American voters from 39% to 35% when redrawing a district in 2003.  One of the now-split counties sued, resulting in this week's ruling.

Though the VRA speaks only generally of preventing the dilution of minority votes in order to preserve the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their own choosing, the court has now made clear that only districts with a majority of minority voters (a so called "majority-minority district") are protected from vote dilution.  In North Carolina the district in question is a "coalition district" where minority voters are able to pick their choice of candidate only when joined in coalition with other voters.

The controlling opinion was written by Justice Kennedy in the conviction that courts need a clear rule for when section 2 applies to avoid what he views as the constitutionally suspect insertion of race into government decision making.  While this decision is a loss for minority voting power and will likely lead to a greater number of minority "packed" districts, many Circuits Courts have previously adopted the Supreme Court's view, limiting the impact of this particular ruling.

The most positive aspect of the decision was a strong statement by Justice Kennedy that “racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history." Court watchers almost unanimously viewed Justice Kennedy's forceful assertions about the continued problems of racism as a sign that the court in another coming voting rights case (which will almost assuredly see Kennedy casting another deciding vote) will likely uphold the power of the Department of Justice to "pre-clear" election law changes in jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchising minorities to make sure that they don't violate voting rights.

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By: Caroline Fan

Transportation Infrastructure Fueled by Gas Tax Increases

One of the biggest topics of conversation in Massachusetts these days is the proposed additional 19 cent gas tax which would go toward roads, bridges, regional transit authorities and public transit improvements throughout the state. More than half of state and local bridges of 20 feet or longer are structurally deficient, while 82 percent of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority's (MBTA) rapid transit rail cars are in poor or marginal condition, according to a report by TRIP.  Furthermore, a 2007 report by the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission found that “the condition of our roads, bridges and transit systems are all in broad decline”¦we have no money for transit or highway enhancements or expansions without further sacrificing our existing systems and exacerbating our problems.”

Governor Deval Patrick’s 19 cent gas tax breaks down in the following way: 4 cents to prevent proposed toll increases; 6 cents to preserve MBTA services and prevent fare increases; 1 cent for "innovative gas and toll solutions;" 1.5 cents for regional transit authorities; 1.5 cents for targeted regional road projects; 3 cents for rail projects outside Boston; and 2 cents to end the practice of paying employee salaries with bond funds. The gas tax increase has been better received than an alternate proposal of $7 tunnel and turnpike tolls. Political supporters who recognize the economic and environmental benefits of infrastructure investment include an interesting mix of environmental, social justice, and business groups such as MassPIRG, Alternatives for Community and Environment, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Massachusetts Business Roundtable, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Even more intriguing is the fact that the business leaders actually support an even higher gas tax of 25 cents. Environmental and transit advocates favor a bill by Reps. Carl Sciortino and Alice Wolf to earmark a 12 cent gas hike that goes directly to the MBTA to put it on a stable financial footing for the long term given its $8 billion debt burden, the largest in the nation, and an estimated $19 billion of infrastructure maintenance costs over the next 20 years that are needed system-wide. Massachusetts has not had a gas tax increase since 1991, and the Governor is also looking at phasing in the gas tax increase, much like HB 644 that was just passed in the New Hampshire House of Representatives with a 15 cent hike on gasoline spread over three years.

Other states are also grappling with their own transportation budget woes. Last session, Minnesota legislators recognized the dire need to fund road and bridge construction after the collapse of the I-35 bridge and passed the first gas tax increase (SF 946) in twenty years, overriding Gov. Pawlenty’s veto.

Nationally, public transit ridership  rose to a high of 10.7 billion trips in 2008 (a record high since 1952), an overall increase of 4 percent from 2007, while vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) on our nation’s roads declined by 3.6 percent in 2008. Congressman Jim Oberstar, Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Congress recently called for a mix of increases on gas taxes and mileage taxes as a fix for states facing large transportation budget deficits, while the White House recently rejected the idea of a mileage tax. The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission has also suggested a temporary 10-cent increase to be followed by a roughly 2-cent fee-per-mile charge as the main revenue for all transportation projects by 2020. States are also examining alternatives to gas tax increases:

  • Oregon is discussing both a gas tax and a gas tax alternative in the form of taxing miles driven after a pilot program conducted in 2007 that replaced the state's 24 cent per gallon tax with a 1.2 cent per mile charge. However, unlike the gas tax, this option treats fuel efficient vehicles and gas-guzzling Hummers equally, which removes an environmental and economical incentive to buy greener cars.
  • North Carolina’s Research Triangle is currently running a mileage tax pilot program of 200 participants to obtain concrete data. 
  • Rhode Island: More than half of the state’s roads are in fair, poor or “failed” condition, according to the Department of Transportation, and 164 bridges of 772 are classified as structurally deficient. The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation suggests a combination of increased tolls, fuel taxes, car registration fees, and a new mileage tax.
  • Michigan is looking at moving from a flat rate tax to a percentage tax on the overall cost which would fluctuate with gasoline prices.

A steady funding stream for transportation infrastructure that works means that workers can get to their jobs easily without the hassle of shoddy roads and bridges, $7 dollar tolls, and broken down trains.

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Updated Recovery Plan Resources

ProPublica has a site, Tracking States' Spending Trackers, that is tracking state efforts to promote online transparency around recovery plan spending.

Green for All and PolicyLink have produced Bringing Home the Green Recovery: A User's Guide to the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an in-depth guide offering up-to-date information and ideas for using and securing recovery dollars to help expand opportunity in low-income communities and communities of color.

Broadband Initiatives Open Meetings: The Commerce Department on Tuesday hosted the first of several open meetings intended to provide more details on how it and other government agencies will handle funds in the economic stimulus package allocated for broadband initiatives.  At this initial meeting, the Commerce Department, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Agriculture Department mostly summarized provisions already laid out in the ARRA on how the funds will be dispersed, although a few details of the ARRA were clarified and funding windows announced during the meeting.

In order to gather more public comments, the NTIA will also host several open forums, four of which will be at the Commerce Department on March 16, 19, 23, and 24. There will also be two hearings held outside DC — one in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 17 and another on March 18 in Flagstaff, Arizona.  Additionally, the NTIA and RUS issued a request for information, which solicits comments from interested parties on a wide range of topics (click here for the list) critical to the design and implementation of NTIA’s grant program and the Rural Utility Service’s grant and loan program, including the establishment of selection criteria for grant awards, grant mechanics, the role of various stakeholders, and coordination between NTIA and RUS. The request for information also seeks comment on the creation of a national broadband map. Comments will be received up to 30 days after publication of the RFI in the Federal Register. Comments may be submitted via the Web, email or mail. Commenters are strongly encouraged to file via the website,


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Research Roundup

The Center for American Progress has a new interactive map to view the unemployment numbers in each state

Harvesting Low-Hanging Energy Savings
 -  Families and businesses fail to invest in energy efficiency for a variety of reasons: utility companies discourage it since their profits are often tied to electricity sold or landlords often don't profit from efficiency investments. This Center for American Progress report highlights how "energy efficiency resource standards" - adopted in 18 states - can generate real energy savings for consumers.

Metropolitan Recovery and Spending Priorities - This series of papers by the Brookings Institution suggests how the federal budget plan and recovery package might affect the metropolitan drivers of national prosperity, including innovation, human capital, infrastructure, and sustainable places.

Nine in Ten: Using the Tax System to Enroll Eligible, Uninsured Children into Medicaid and SCHIP - With 89.4% of uninsured children who qualify for Medicaid or SHIP living in families who file federal income tax homes, this Urban Institute paper argues that reforms that linked income tax data to health coverage applications could dramatically expand health coverage.

The Need for Speed: The Importance of Next-Generation Broadband Networks - In this report, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) argues that a jump to much faster "next generation" broadband speeds will allow radically new forms of Interent use, including collaborative music production, virtual teleconferencing, real time sharing of file servers, virtual classrooms, remote surgery and and a range of other uses that will have profound effects on economic and social life.

Election Protection 2008: Helping Voters Today, Modernizing the System for Tomorrow - The Election Protection Network has released their post-mortem on the 2008 elections.  Presented at the Senate Rules Committee hearing on voter registration, the report finds that the largest problem in the 2008 election was voter registration problems, which effected over a third of the voters seeking assistance through the election protection hotline.

The Millennial Pendulum and Yes We Can - Two new reports from the New America Foundation outline the overwhelmingly progressive political views of young voters ("millennials") as well as their emergence as a coherent political generation.

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Supreme Court Limits Redistricting Provision of Voting Rights Act

Bartlett v Strickland - US Supreme Court
Supreme Court Holds to Narrow Interpretation of the Voting Rights Act - Christian Science Monitor
Narrowing the Voting Rights Act - NY Times
Analysis: Settling an Issue of Race and Politics - SCOTUS Blog

Transportation Infrastructure Fueled by Gas Tax Increases


Ridership Report 2008  - American Public Transit Association

State Policies for a $4/Gallon World - Progressive States Network

Revving Up the Tax Engine - Resources for the Future

Transportation Finance in Massachusetts: An Unsustainable System - Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission
Future Mobility in Massachusetts - TRIP
Fueling Transportation Finance: A Primer on the Gas Tax - Brookings Institution




An interview with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema by PSN's Austin Guest

Kyrsten Sinema, Democratic Representative from Arizona and PSN Board Member, discusses her work on immigration and LGBT rights, fashioning a more inclusive and optimistic progressive movement, and the importance of building a collaborative multi-state colaition to bring about progressive in cooperation with the Obama Administration. View the full video here. (Videography by Greg Gagnon)



The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Interim Executive Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Economic Development Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Executive Administrator and Outreach Associate
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

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