The Supreme Court
of Political Equality
What Are Political Equality Cases?
In the 1970s, African-American voters made up about onethird of the Mobile, Alabama, electorate. Whites and blacks tended to prefer different candidates for each of the three city commissioners, a phenomenon voting experts have come to call “racially polarized voting.”1 Mobile conducted its elections for the city commission using an “atlarge” system, meaning everyone in the city voted for each commissioner. Because of these three factors—whites heavily outnumbered blacks, voting was racially polarized, and the city used at-large voting—no candidate preferred by African-American voters had ever been elected city commissioner or was likely to be elected commissioner in the foreseeable future.
A change from the at-large election scheme to single-member districting likely would allow a majority of African-Americans to elect a commissioner of their choice. If one of the three new districts were to include a majority of African-Americans (a “majority-minority” district), that district likely would elect a candidate preferred by a majority of AfricanAmericans. African-Americans likely could achieve such a result even if Mobile kept at-large districts if it adopted an alternative voting mechanism, such as cumulative voting, allowing residents to vote up to three votes for a single candidate.2
Does it violate principles of political equality to conduct Mobile's elections on an at-large basis, or, more focused for the purpose of this book, how should the Supreme Court decide a claim by Mobile's African-Americans that at-large voting under these conditions is unconstitutional? The Court confronted this question in its 1980 case City of Mobile v. Bolden,3