ERVIN, Circuit Judge:
This case is on remand from the United States Supreme Court. See Collins v. City of Norfolk, ___ U.S. ___, 106 S.Ct. 3326, 92 L.Ed.2d 733 (1986) (vacating Collins v. City of Norfolk, 768 F.2d 572 (4th Cir.1985)). The Court remanded the case for consideration in light of Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. ___, 106 S.Ct. 2752, 92 L.Ed.2d 25 (1986) ("Gingles").
The facts were developed succinctly in this court's first opinion, see 768 F.2d at 573-75, and fully in the trial court's opinion, see Collins v. City of Norfolk, 605 F.Supp. 377 (E.D.Va.1984). The case involves a challenge to the City of Norfolk's at-large system of voting for city council members. The plaintiffs allege that this system violates the requirements of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973.
S.Rep. No. 417, 97th Cong., 2d Sess. 28-29, reprinted in 1982 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 177, 206-07 (emphasis added). The Report stresses that this list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive and that "there is no requirement that any particular number of factors be proved, or that a majority of them point one way or the other." Id. at 29, 1982 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News at 207. The Report "espouses a flexible, fact-intensive test for § 2 violations," Gingles, ___ U.S. at ___, 106 S.Ct. at 2764, but it limits the proof of a § 2 violation in three ways.
Id. The Gingles decision is essentially a gloss on these factors and limiting circumstances.
The essence of a § 2 claim, as characterized in Gingles, is that some electoral characteristic interacts with social and historical conditions to create an inequality in minority and majority voters' ability to elect their preferred candidates. ___ U.S. at ___, 106 S.Ct. at 2764. It is essential for plaintiffs to prove that minority and majority voters consistently prefer different candidates, and that the majority, by virtue of its numerical superiority, will usually defeat the choices of the minority. Id.
The minority must show three things as a threshold matter:
1. That it is sufficiently large and geographically compact enough to make a majority, if it were voting in a single-member district;
2. that it is politically cohesive; and
3. that the majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it — in the absence of special circumstances, such as an unopposed minority candidate — usually to defeat the minority's preferred candidate. Id. at ___ _ ___, 106 S.Ct. at 2766.
The implication of this gloss on § 2 is that, of the seven primary factors on the Senate Report list, two are typically the most important: the existence of racially polarized voting, which establishes both cohesiveness of the minority group and the power of white bloc voting to defeat the minority's candidates, and the actual results of minority-preferred candidates in winning elections.
The opinions in Gingles, while not amounting to lucid explication of all features of the amended § 2, make clear that certain legal errors were committed in trying this case below. We summarize those errors here, and remand to the district court for reconsideration in light of Gingles.
I. RACIALLY POLARIZED VOTING
The legal standard for the existence of racially polarized voting looks only to the difference between how majority votes and minority votes were cast; it does not ask why those votes were cast the way they were nor whether there were other factors present in contested elections, such as "white backlash." The court should inquire separately into minority and majority voting, to see whether members of the minority usually vote for the same candidates — if so, there is the requisite minority political cohesiveness — and to see whether the majority vote is sufficiently homogenous
The district court in this case used an erroneous definition of racially polarized voting. The plaintiffs' definition, offered to the court, was that "racially polarized voting occurs when the majority of one racial group votes contrary to the majority of another racial group." The court rejected this in favor of the defendants' definition, which contained three elements:
605 F.Supp. at 386. This choice was wrong, as Gingles makes clear. The trial court should not inquire into the first and third elements in determining the existence of polarized voting.
There is no consensus in Gingles on the proper role of causation evidence concerning voting patterns, except that such evidence cannot be used to rebut the claim that there is racially polarized voting.
The district court in this case also rejected plaintiffs' studies of voting patterns due to methodological problems. The problems included, but apparently were not limited to, the lack of data from the mostly white Norfolk naval station residents. See 605 F.Supp. at 387. It is unclear from the opinion whether these methodological problems, leading to rejection of the plaintiffs' polarization studies, also included the failure to isolate variables other than race in the voting behavior analysis. It is within the trial court's discretion to find that methodological flaws undercut the probative value of a study so deeply as to render it inadmissible. See, e.g., United States v. 25.406 Acres of Land, 172 F.2d 990, 993 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 337 U.S. 931, 69 S.Ct. 1496, 93 L.Ed. 1738 (1949); Fed.R.Evid. 403. But the failure to include causative factors that purport to explain voting patterns cannot be a basis for rejecting plaintiffs' studies on the existence of polarized voting. And given that this case was tried before a judge, the studies should have been admitted unless their methodological flaws were so severe as to render them irrelevant or totally misleading.
The racially polarized voting factor is one of the two cardinal factors identified by Gingles. The district court's error in defining it cannot be discounted. It is crucial to the legitimacy of the political system that questions about its fairness be answered
II. MINORITY ELECTORAL SUCCESS
The Court in Gingles reversed the part of the district panel decision that found a § 2 violation in North Carolina House District 23 (Durham). The fact that blacks in District 23 had enjoyed proportional representation since 1973 mandated judgment for the defendants.
A black citizen has been elected to the Norfolk City Council, comprised of seven members, in every election since at least 1972. 605 F.Supp. at 405. The district court found further that "white candidates who have been the choice of a majority of the black electorate have been elected to the Council consistently over the years." Id. at 405. The district court concluded: "blacks and candidates of choice of the black community have been elected to public office in Norfolk." Id. at 405.
The district court did not find that the black community in Norfolk had achieved proportional or nearly proportional representation. Gingles makes clear only that a minority cannot prove a § 2 violation in the face of continued and proportional success at the polls. The myriad numbers before this panel seem to indicate a consistent level of political success by Norfolk blacks that nevertheless is not as conspicuous as that achieved by the black community in North Carolina District 23.
The factfinder must use great care in assessing what counts as a "minority electoral success." The mere election of a candidate who appears to have received votes from more than fifty percent of minority ballots does not count as a minority electoral success, when each ballot may contain votes for more than one candidate. In such a situation, if there were other candidates, preferred by a significantly higher percentage of the minority community, who were defeated in the same election, then it cannot fairly be said that the minority community has successfully elected representatives of its choice.
Moreover, the absence of a conspiracy or an intent to moot this litigation does not end the district court's inquiry. The court should probe further to determine whether the black candidate's success in 1984, while this action was pending, resulted from unusual circumstances. Never before in the history of the city had two black councilmen served simultaneously. Nevertheless, the mayor supported a second black candidate for the first time. He coupled his unprecedented support with the public statement, "After the election, the issue of black representation may become a moot point."
The mayor's intent, or whether he and other white leaders conspired, is not dispositive. A proper inquiry must examine the result of the mayor's conduct and statement. If voting patterns show unusual white support for the black candidate in 1984, the legal significance of his success should be diminished. See ___ U.S. at ___-___, 106 S.Ct. at 2778-81. As long as that particularized investigation is made, however, the trial court's findings should not be disturbed on appeal unless they are clearly erroneous.
The presence of either of these two cardinal factors — voting that is severely polarized along racial lines or sustained minority electoral success that achieves proportional or nearly-proportional representation — would weigh very heavily in the ultimate determination that minority voters do not or do have equal access in the polity. But that ultimate determination still must be made on the basis of the "totality of the circumstances." Once the ultimate determination is made, the "clearly erroneous" test of Rule 52(a) is the appropriate standard for appellate review. See ___ U.S. at ___, 106 S.Ct. at 2780; Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a). However, the definitions and legal criteria — such as of "racially polarized voting" — must accord with law, and will be reviewed as legal questions.
III. OTHER SENATE REPORT FACTORS
The district court's definition of "a candidate slating process" was overly restrictive, and should be abandoned. The district court found no group of white citizens in Norfolk acting as a formal or informal slating organization which controlled access to the ballot. The district court accepted a definition of "slating group" proposed by one of the defendants' experts that put important emphasis on the fact that such a group proposes candidates for all available seats. Thus, two white businessmen who ran together for City Council in 1976 were not viewed as slated candidates, because they had no third running mate for the other vacant seat. Gingles did not change or refine the understanding of a "slating group" or "slating process."
There seems to be no consensus in federal law or in political science texts on a definitive meaning of the phrase "slating group." But there is no support in the law for the restrictive definition chosen by the trial court. In White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755, 766-67, 93 S.Ct. 2332, 2339-40, 37 L.Ed.2d 314 (1973), and Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124, 150-51 & n. 30, 91 S.Ct. 1858, 1872-73 n. 30, 29 L.Ed.2d 363 (1971), two important sources for the phrase that ultimately made its way into the Senate
Unlike the situation in the disputed North Carolina districts at issue in Gingles, see ___ U.S. at ___-___, 106 S.Ct. at 2759-62, black voter registration and turnout have recently increased in Norfolk. The district court acknowledged that fact, see, e.g., 605 F.Supp. at 402, 404, as did this court in its first opinion, see 768 F.2d at 574-75. This factor is probative, but not dispositive, of black electoral participation, and there is no reason to believe that the district court viewed it as inordinately important.
The district court found no special electoral devices used in Norfolk that "enhanced the opportunity for discrimination against the minority group." 605 F.Supp. at 403. Many particular features of an electoral system, such as the lack of district residency requirements and the presence of staggered terms of office, may under some circumstances make it structurally more difficult for minorities to be elected. Cf. Gingles, ___ U.S. at ___, 106 S.Ct. at 2761 ("procedures may operate to lessen ... opportunity") (emphasis added). The question whether those procedures do so operate is a factual one, to be reviewed on the same basis as other factual matters. There is no indication that the district court clearly erred in finding no discriminatory devices in Norfolk.
Finally, the district court considered the plaintiffs' allegations of unresponsiveness to the needs of the minority community and found that the defendants had rebutted most of these allegations. The district court ruled that the plaintiffs had to prove that the removal of 1,800 families, most of whom were black, for redevelopment for housing for middle-income families, was racially motivated. This was the wrong legal test. Proof of discriminatory intent, as Gingles noted, is not required by § 2 of the Act, and it is not an element of proof of the factors mentioned in the Senate report. On remand, the district court should determine whether the removal of these black families by city officials was unresponsive to their needs without requiring proof that the officials were racially motivated.
On remand issues may arise which are not addressed by this opinion. In this event, the district court should follow the mandate of the Supreme Court and consult Gingles for guidance.
REVERSED AND REMANDED.
42 U.S.C. § 1973, as amended, 96 Stat. 134 (emphasis added).
It is difficult to square the plaintiffs' assertion that causative factors are entirely irrelevant with the need to consider special circumstances that might explain particular minority successes, such as white reaction to the filing of a § 2 lawsuit. Those special circumstances are, in essence, other causation factors. For this reason, the separate concurrence of Justice O'Connor is more persuasive in explaining that causation evidence may play a role, albeit not in defining "racially polarized voting."