Alabama is still America’s battleground for voting rights

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a provisional ruling that overturned a lower court’s order about Alabama’s gerrymandered Congressional maps. It was a 5-4 decision with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the three liberal justices in their dissent. 

A lower court had ordered Alabama to redraw its Congressional districts, arguing that the existing map diluted the power of the state’s Black voters by packing the majority of them into one district. And an appeals court – composed of three justices, including two appointed by President Donald Trump – had upheld the decision.

Alabama’s voting age population is approximately 27% Black, while just one of the state’s seven Congressional representatives is Black – roughly 14% of the representation. 

In Southern states like Alabama, the Republican and Democratic parties are almost uniformly divided along racial lines. As a result, partisan gerrymandering and racial gerrymandering are virtually indistinguishable. The lower court said that, given the racial makeup of the state’s voter base, Black voters should be represented by their choice of at least two of the state’s seven Congressional districts.

The Supreme Court’s decision does not endorse the map proposed by Alabama’s legislature – currently a Republican supermajority – but instead says the court will hear the case on its merits in the future. 

However, the Court also issued a stay on the lower court’s ruling, meaning that Alabama will not be required to draw new maps before the 2022 election cycle. 

This decision, as well as what it signals about future rulings, could have a monumental impact on voting rights and representation in the South and around the country, so we’ve put together a brief explainer about what’s at stake.

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What was the original lawsuit?

Every ten years following the U.S. Census, states redraw voting maps based on how the state’s population is changing. A few states have established nonpartisan committees to draw their maps but in most states, including Alabama, the legislature draws the maps.

As voter mapping technology has improved over the past few decades, politicians have been able to create maps that solidify their power with increasing precision. If you look at the proposed map of Alabama, you can see that District 7 is drawn to include most of Birmingham, the Black Belt, Montgomery and part of Tuscaloosa. That effectively packs much of the state’s Black population into one district, while maximizing the reach of the state’s rural white voters.

The plaintiffs – which included five individual Alabama voters, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP,  Greater Birmingham Ministries, and lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the ACLU of Alabama Foundation – challenged the proposed map on the grounds that it violated the Voting Rights Act, which protects the rights of minority voters.

A federal court in Birmingham agreed and ordered the state to draw new maps that created at least one other majority-minority district within two weeks or the court would appoint a commissioner to draw the maps. The state of Alabama, represented by Attorney General Steve Marshall, appealed the decision and an appeals court upheld the ruling.

On Monday, Supreme Court stayed the decision and reinstated the newly proposed map. 

What might a fair map look like? Check out this interactive tool from 2018. 

What was the Supreme Court’s rationale?

They didn’t exactly say! 

The majority opinion was brief and included no reasoning for their provisional decision. They simply indicated they would hear the case which, given typical court procedure, would not likely not result in a final decision until after the 2022 elections have occurred.

Justice Kavanaugh did issue a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Alito, in which he argued: “When an election is close at hand, the rules of the road must be clear and settled. Late judicial tinkering with election laws can lead to disruption and to unanticipated and unfair consequences for candidates, political parties and voters, among others.”

Four of his fellow justices disagreed.

Chief Justice Roberts said in his dissenting opinion that the Supreme Court should be willing to hear the state of Alabama’s appeal but should not have issued a stay against the lower court ruling in the map. He argued the lower court had “properly applied existing law in an extensive opinion with no apparent errors for our correction,” and that the 2022 election should’ve taken place under the ruling of the lower court. 

Justice Elena Kegan wrote her own dissent, which was joined by Justices Sotomayor and Breyer, arguing that the lower courts had given the state of Alabama plenty of time to sort this out prior to the primary and general elections and that this decision, “does a disservice to Black Alabamians who under that precedent have had their electoral power diminished — in violation of a law this court once knew to buttress all of American democracy.”

“Alabama is not entitled to keep violating Black Alabamians’ voting rights just because the court’s order came down in the first month of an election year.”

What happens next?

Alabama’s 2022 elections will proceed under the map proposed by the Alabama legislature.

At some point in the next year, the Supreme Court will hear full arguments on the case and render a verdict. But the current makeup of the court suggests that they may be prepared to uphold the racially gerrymandered map permanently.

What does this mean for voting rights?

The Supreme Court has already shown a willingness to undercut the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the Shelby v. Holder decision gutted Section 5 which required states with a history of discrimination to preclear all election changes with the federal government. It also undermined Section 2 of the VRA by limiting the ability of minority groups to challenge election laws.

A similar ruling in this case would further gut Section 2, which is designed to protect the rights of minority voters. But by allowing racially gerrymandered maps in Alabama – and opening a legal pathway for similar maps across the country – the Supreme Court would allow states to dilute the impact of their minority voters by drawing them into packed districts. That would decrease the overall representation of minority voters in Congress (a body which is already much whiter than the country’s demographics).

In the Shelby v. Holder ruling, the Court advised Congress to revisit and update the preclearance requirements but Congressional Republicans have blocked all efforts to update the Voting Rights Act or pass new voting rights legislation. 

Learn more about how Alabama gutted the Voting Rights Act in this 2020 conversation with Carol Anderson. 

What could this mean for future elections?

Some challenges to state’s election maps are making their way through state courts, such as in North Carolina. The North Carolina Supreme Court threw out racially gerrymandered districts proposed by the Republican-controlled legislature. 

It is not clear whether North Carolina Republicans will appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or whether SCOTUS would hear the case, but the ruling in Alabama may give them reason for hope.

Congressional control could come down to just a handful of House districts and so Republicans and Democrats are rushing to draw advantageous maps all across the country. As a result the average district is much less competitive now than it was a decade or two ago. That makes Congress much more polarized, much more dysfunctional and much more beholden to extremism.  

Alabama was one of the battlegrounds for American democracy. The blood shed in places like Selma and Montgomery, directly led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

And Alabama has remained a battleground, a place where court verdicts have chipped away at those protections, bit by bit. It will take an act of Congress to restore those protections and ensure them for future generations.

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