Thornburg v. Gingles (1986)

Thornburg v. Gingles,
478 U. S. 30 (1986)

Case Summary

North Carolina’s 1982 redistricting plan was challenged by African American residents
arguing that one single-member district and six multimember districts on the
grounds the new districts impaired African American citizens’ ability to “elect
representatives of their choice in violation of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of
1965.” § 2 had been amended by law such that a violation of § 2 could be proved
by showing discriminatory effect alone, rather than having to show any
discriminatory intent. This change established what is known as the “result
test” for demonstrating discrimination.


In a complicated but unanimous ruling, the Court held that “the use of multimember districts generally will not impede the ability of minority voters to elect representatives of their choice.” Rather, plaintiffs must demonstrate that “a bloc voting majority must usually be able to defeat candidates supported by a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group.” Essentially, plaintiffs must show a pattern of racially polarized voting, or “block-voting.” If such a pattern exists, such districts could qualify as a violation of § 2. Furthermore, “the language of § 2 and its legislative history plainly demonstrate that proof that some minority candidates have been elected does not foreclose a § 2 claim.” Unwilling to embrace too inflexible of a standard, the ruling ordered courts, when “evaluating a statutory claim of vote dilution through districting… to consider the “totality of circumstances” and to determine, based upon a practical evaluation of the past and present realities, whether the political process is equally open to minority voters.” The Court also upheld the principle that “Plaintiffs need not prove causation or intent.”

Impact on Redistricting

Thornburg set the three-part standard
for reviewing plans challenged under § 2 for diluting minority voting power. Under this case,
if a minority has a population large enough to constitute a majority in a
single district, that minority displays political solidarity, and non-minority
voters consistently oppose that minority’s preferred candidate, then the plans
must be drawn to protect the minority district. This has essentially mandated
the existence of certain districts, even ones that had to be gerrymandered to
maintain a majority-minority population,
such as California’s 38th district. These districts more or less
cannot be touched in redistricting plans. This requirement has also led some
critics to claim that the creation of majority-minority
districts in fact dilutes minority voting strength by “packing” minority
voters into fewer districts. The case has ended the practice of using
multimember districts to dilute minority voting strength.