Skip to content

Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, Eric McGhee & Christopher Warshaw, Non-Retrogression Without Law, 2023 U. Chi. Legal F. 267 (2023).

Abstract: For five straight cycles (the 1970s through the 2010s), Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act dominated redistricting in states covered by the provision. In these states, district plans had to be precleared with federal authorities before they could be implemented. Preclearance was granted only if plans wouldn’t retrogress, that is, reduce minority representation. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, Section 5 is no longer operative. So what happened to minority representation in formerly covered states after Section 5’s protections were withdrawn? This Article is the first to tackle this important question. We examine all states’ district plans before and after the 2020 round of redistricting at the congressional, state senate, and state house levels. Our primary finding is that there was little retrogression in formerly covered states. In sum, the number of minority ability districts in these states actually rose slightly. We also show that formerly covered states were largely indistinguishable from formerly uncovered states in terms of retrogression. If anything, states unaffected by Shelby County retrogressed marginally more than did states impacted by the ruling. Lastly, we begin to probe some of the factors that might explain this surprising pattern. One possible explanation is the status quo bias of many mapmakers, which is reflected in their tendency to keep minority representation constant. Another potential driver is many line-drawers’ reluctance to use retrogression as a partisan weapon. This reluctance is evident in the similar records of all redistricting authorities with respect to retrogression, as well as in the absence of any relationship between retrogression and change in plans’ partisan performance.