Late on Friday, a three-judge federal court ruled that a dozen state legislative districts in Alabama violated the constitution and instructed the legislature to redraw them—an order that could ultimately affect many more districts that neighbor the illegally drawn seats. Republican lawmakers, who control the legislature, had intentionally packed black voters into a handful of majority-black districts in order to dilute their influence in adjacent seats.
The court found that the the GOP’s scheme violated the Voting Rights Act, which requires that states create districts where communities of color can elect representatives of their choice. But, said the court, lawmakers could not comply with the law by arbitrarily setting a threshold for a minimum black population per district; instead, they must determine the proportion of black voters needed to elect their preferred legislators on a case-by-case basis—and that proportion is almost invariably lower than the higher bar that Republicans had used.
This same three-judge panel had originally upheld these maps in 2013 before the Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 2015, sending it back to the lower court for reconsideration. If Republican legislators appeal Friday’s ruling, the case could go back before the Supreme Court again, where swing Justice Anthony Kennedy would hopefully side with the court’s four liberals once again and finally set down a national precedent that would define the rules governing the permissible use of race in redistricting.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides, though, Alabama remains implacably Republican, and even if they’re barred from engaging in impermissible racial gerrymandering, white Republicans would continue to dominate the legislature. Nonetheless, this ruling could have major implications for other similar maps that Republicans have instituted across much of the South.
As we have previously demonstrated, nearly every Southern state could have drawn another congressional district to elect the candidate of choice of black and Hispanic voters, Alabama included. Similarly, Republican legislators in many Southern states intentionally drew legislative district maps that limited the power of black and Hispanic voters, and consequently Democrats.
Should courts start striking down these other maps or imposing new restrictions during the upcoming round of redistricting following the 2020 census, Democrats could gain several congressional districts and many more legislative seats. Such rulings could even potentially tip the balance of power in more closely divided state legislatures like in North Carolina and Virginia, where the Supreme Court is about to decide two other major racial gerrymandering cases.