University of Utah political scientist Baodong Liu served as an expert witness in a consequential voting rights case decided on June 8 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision in Allen v. Milligan rejected Alabama’s congressional redistricting map because it disenfranchises African-American voters.
In a surprise 5-4 ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court agreed with Liu’s premise that the new voting districts, redrawn after the 2020 Census, packed a large portion of Alabama’s Black voters into a single district, thus diluting their voice in the six other districts.
Roberts was joined by fellow conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal justices in upholding a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Central to the case was Alabama’s history of “racially polarized voting,” according to Liu, a professor of political science, as well as of ethnic studies in the U’s School for Social and Cultural Transformation. His analysis found the state’s Black voters tend to overwhelmingly favor candidates from their own racial group, while white voters vote as a bloc for white candidates.
While Alabama’s voting population is nearly 27% Black, just one of its seven congressional seats is held by an African-American, Democrat Terri Sewell. The other six are held by White Republicans.
This is largely the result of a voting-district map that packs many of the state’s Black residents into Sewell’s Birmingham district, while the others are spread out among the other districts in a way that virtually ensures their preferred candidate won’t stand much chance of winning election, according to Liu, who teaches political science in the College of Social and Behavioral Science.
Similar legal challenges are targeting congressional district maps in other Southern states. This week, the Supreme Court affirmed a federal court’s decision that Louisiana’s six-district congressional map is racially gerrymandered to favor White voters.
An immigrant from China, Liu is a U.S. citizen and a Utah voter. What follows is a Q&A with Liu conducted by U science writer Brian Maffly, edited for length and clarity.
What is at stake in the Alabama case?
As a state in the South, Alabama is growing in terms of population. We have the requirement every 10 years to do the census, which gives us the overall look at the balance of power in Congress in terms of which states get more seats, and which states get fewer seats. Southern states tend to get more seats, but if they have more seats, will they get more representation for only the White majority and not minorities.
This case is about the Voting Rights Act, arguably, the most significant and successful civil rights law in U.S. history. It was such a significant law that had never taken place in human history, where the minorities of a nation can have access to not only representation at the highest level, but also state and local governments, all due to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It’s a huge accomplishment in our history. All of us should be very proud of it. However, more recently the political atmosphere has changed. The division has gone deep and the nation has revisited all kinds of laws, the Voting Rights Act being one of those. It’s up to the court to tell us how we should interpret the Voting Rights Act, and more importantly, how should we implement it. This Alabama case put everything at the center. Should we explain the Voting Rights Act in a way that fits our fundamental desire for not only majority rule, but also equality under law for all? This case has everything at stake in terms of not only politically, who gets elected and who represents who, but also how the democracy itself should represent in the future.
The idea of “racially polarized voting” is central to this case. What is it and why does it matter?
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Voting Rights Act concerning Section 2 is what we call the Gingles precondition. The Supreme Court’s 1986 Gingles decision made it clear in order to make a Section 2 claim, which is the vote dilution of a state entity against certain minorities, it is based on the tests that the Supreme Court set up. The centerpiece of the Gingles tests is called “racial polarized voting.” What does that mean? On the surface it is very intuitive, meaning different racial groups are polarized in their choices of voting. It’s American voters’ right to choose whoever they want to vote for. However, if racial groups do not agree with each other consistently then it has a profound impact on election outcomes.
If this racially polarized voting takes place again and again and again, one has to ask, who will be elected? Intuitively it’s White voters’ choice that will prevail because they are the super majority of the state and they can form a formidable bloc to defeat any minority candidate, which leads to a scenario where White voters dictate the election outcome, a phenomenon of tyranny of majority that our Constitution tries to correct.
How did you become involved in the Alabama case?
I am an immigrant myself. Back in China, I never had a chance to vote for anything. There was no election in China in a substantive way. As a graduate student coming to the U.S. studying American voting, it was always my desire to learn the mysteries surrounding it, but also for the incredible achievement of American democracy. That is, everybody has a right to vote, and collectively they decide based on their individual choices, who should represent them, but also for the most powerful position in human history, that is the U.S. president.
When I was a graduate student in New Orleans, the question was at the mayor level. Was it possible for White voters to cast their vote across racial lines for Black candidates? I wrote a dissertation about the conditions under which White voters were willing to vote for black candidates [for mayor]. For that, I won the American Political Science Association dissertation award. And within just a few years beyond my Ph.D., the whole nation was faced with the choice of Barack Obama [the first African American elected president]. After I became an assistant professor, I was asked by voting groups to help analyze data. So starting from Obama’s election all the way to this current case in Alabama, I’ve been practicing as an expert witness for more than two decades.
What did you document about Alabama’s new congressional districts during your investigation?
What I have done in this case was to collect data in real elections. There are two parts to it. One is what we call “endogenous” elections. Those are the elections that deal directly with the elected offices under dispute in this case, congressional seats. I analyzed those elections from 2008 all the way to 2020. I analyzed seven congressional districts. That’s too few, so I analyzed a second group of elections called “exogenous” elections, which concern statewide offices, such as lieutenant governor and state auditor, to supplement the endogenous elections. In both groups of elections, I found racially polarized voting.
I also compared the enacted plan, passed by the state Legislature and signed by the governor of Alabama, with the plan proposed by the plaintiffs in this case, the Legal Defense Fund and other organizations that provided competing maps. I evaluate which plans would give more equal access to minorities based on empirical data. I’m an empirical scientist, so everything I do is based on data and statistical analysis.
Your take on Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion?
In my view, this is one of the best written opinions ever because it shows at the Jurisprudence level, how the court’s majority opinion evaluated not only the claim of Alabama but also the plaintiffs who challenged Alabama’s plan based on court’s interpretation of our Constitution.
It’s not in favor of either the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party. It’s written in a very objective tone. It has no accusation against any party. It is fully based on the facts that both sides presented and explains why the court has gone through vigorous tests in the facts itself. And most importantly the case sends a strong message of why the Voting Rights Act still holds true today in our great democracy. All that is not based on whether the chief justice is a conservative or not. It’s based on his read of our great constitution. For that I am forever grateful as an American.
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Science writer, University of Utah Communications