Alabama will have to redraw its congressional map to create a second district where Black voters can elect their preferred candidate ahead of the 2024 elections following an unexpected Supreme Court ruling on Thursday. The decision could also require similar changes to maps in Louisiana and Georgia—and potentially other states as well—which could in turn affect the balance of power in the closely divided House of Representatives.
Legal experts had widely expected the court's right-wing majority to once again further eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, which formed the basis of the challenge to Alabama's map, by undermining a key provision that prohibits racial discrimination in redistricting. But in a stunning 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court's three liberals to keep the VRA's existing protections in place.
Last year, a panel of three federal judges unanimously ruled that Alabama Republicans had violated the VRA by drawing a congressional map that packed Black voters—who overwhelmingly support Democrats—into just one of the state's seven districts. By doing so, lawmakers ensured that white voters could be guaranteed to elect Republicans in the state's other six districts, creating a gerrymander favoring the GOP.
Plaintiffs, however, demonstrated that it's readily possible to draw a second district where Black voters would have the power to elect the candidates of their choice (who would typically be Black Democrats). Even though two of its judges had been appointed by Donald Trump, the lower court panel agreed and ordered the legislature to come up with a new map.
However, the Supreme Court stepped in to temporarily block that ruling on the questionable grounds that it had come too close to the 2022 elections for changes to be made to the map. That ensured that last year's contests were held under districts now judged to be illegal, giving Republicans a free pass for the election cycle, but they will now have to be redrawn for 2024.
At stake in this lawsuit was Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits electoral maps that have the effect of diluting the votes of communities of color. Through a series of rulings since the 1980s, the Supreme Court established a framework known as the Gingles criteria under which plaintiffs making Section 2 claims must first show that a minority group is large and compact enough to form a majority in a district. Challengers must also demonstrate that a minority is politically cohesive and that voting is racially polarized, with the white majority voting as a bloc to defeat the minority group's preferred candidates.
The lower court ruled that the challengers, a group of voters supported by the state NAACP, had met all of these requirements and more. Illustrative maps drawn by plaintiff's experts whom the court deemed "highly credible" satisfied the first criterion, while the judges determined that the question of racial polarization in Alabama elections was "not genuinely in dispute." (White voters almost always prefer Republicans, while Black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats.)
The Gingles factors, however, are only a threshold. Plaintiffs were then obligated to demonstrate that, "under the totality of the circumstances," Black Alabamians have less "opportunity to elect" their preferred candidates. The court concluded that this was in fact the case after engaging in a lengthy examination of the state's "well-documented, pervasive, and sordid history of racial discrimination," as one quoted expert for the plaintiffs put it.
The GOP's gerrymander worked by packing Black voters into one sprawling district containing parts of Birmingham, the state capital of Montgomery, and the rural Black Belt, a predominantly African American string of low-income counties that run across the lower tier of the state. (The region originally earned its name from its dark, rich topsoil, which inspired white enslavers to build cotton plantations there, in turn leading to its large Black population that persists today.)
Under the GOP's now-invalidated map, the Black Belt was split among three districts to ensure Black voters wouldn't enjoy meaningful political power in more than one of them. The alternative maps put forth by plaintiffs instead united much of the Black Belt with the coastal city of Mobile to create a second Black district while keeping the rest of the region connected with Birmingham, which forms the heart of the only Black-majority district that Republicans had drawn. But thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling, Alabama will now have to create a second Black district, which will likely end up resembling one of the plaintiffs' proposals.
In appealing the lower court ruling, Alabama Republicans had advanced multiple arguments that would have effectively destroyed the VRA's redistricting protections by making them impossible to meet in many existing districts, let alone in any new ones. The worst-case scenario would have made it impossible to challenge maps on the basis of racist impact alone and instead required challengers to prove actual racist intent—an almost impossible hurdle, since the Supreme Court has in recent years shielded Republican attacks on voting rights from such scrutiny as long as lawmakers don't explicitly admit to racist motivations.
But by leaving Section 2 in place, Thursday's ruling will likely have reverberations far beyond Alabama. In a very similar lawsuit last year, a federal court in Louisiana ruled that the state also had to create a second district where Black voters could elect their candidate of choice. The Supreme Court likewise put that case on hold until it could resolve the Alabama dispute, but now it can proceed.
In a third suit over whether Georgia should have to draw an additional Black district in the Atlanta suburbs, the lower court there paused its own proceedings pending the Alabama decision while saying the plaintiffs were likely to prevail. Additional VRA lawsuits are also ongoing in other states, including Texas, where a similar outcome could see the creation of multiple new Latino districts that would similarly be likely to elect Democrats.
Still, there's no guarantee that such lawsuits will be successful in all of these states. However, it's possible that plaintiffs could succeed in many of these cases, if not in time for 2024 then by 2026.
With Republicans positioned to re-gerrymander North Carolina and Ohio, the national congressional map, which already favors the GOP, was set to shift even further to the right. But if challengers succeed in bringing VRA claims, they would not only strike a blow for voting rights, they could also rebalance the overall playing field. A series of such victories could both enable Black and Latino candidates to win several more seats and greatly improve the odds of Democrats taking back the House.