Thursday's stunning Supreme Court decision that will require Alabama to redraw its congressional map will not only allow Black voters to elect their candidate of choice in a second district, it's likely to have a far-reaching impact on similar cases across the country. As a result, we may soon see Louisiana and Georgia, and possibly even other states such as Texas, reconfigure their maps to remedy violations of the Voting Rights Act. Such changes would both empower voters of color and potentially swing enough seats toward Democrats to affect the balance of power in the closely divided House of Representatives.
And we already have a good sense of what these new districts might look like. In order to prove their claims under the relevant provision of the VRA (known as Section 2), plaintiffs in Alabama and elsewhere must draw illustrative maps demonstrating that the minority group in question is both large enough and sufficiently geographically compact such that its members can form a majority in a reasonably drawn district.
The Alabama challengers, a group of voters backed by the state NAACP, hired two experts to do just that. Together, they drew 11 hypothetical maps of the state's seven congressional districts showing that a second Black-majority district could easily be crafted. Four of those maps, created by Tufts professor Moon Duchin, are shown at the top of this post. (You can find a larger version at this link and interactive versions here.)
The plaintiffs' general approach would decouple the cities of Birmingham and Montgomery, two locales with large Black populations that Republicans deliberately merged into the current 7th District in order to reduce Black voting strength elsewhere—the very type of discrimination that the VRA was designed to thwart. At the same time, Republicans carved up the Black Belt, a rural region home to many African Americans, between three districts, using a portion of it to link Birmingham and Montgomery. That now-invalidated GOP map is shown below (with a larger version here):
Instead, the plaintiffs' maps have Birmingham and Montgomery each anchor their own districts while dividing the Black Belt between the two. (In the maps at the top of this post, the Birmingham district is shown in gray and retains the number 7, while the Montgomery district is in green and would be numbered the 2nd.) In every version, both would be home to a Black majority, and both would very likely elect Black voters' preferred candidates to Congress—almost certainly Black Democrats, like the current representative for the 7th District, Terri Sewell.
It will still be some time before we have a new map officially in place, though, and we can't predict its precise contours, though there’s a good chance it will resemble one of the plaintiffs' offerings. We also can’t say for sure who will even get to draw it. Last year, when the three-judge district court panel that heard the Alabama case struck down the GOP's map, it gave lawmakers the opportunity to come up with a new one. But perhaps expecting the Supreme Court would step in, Republicans refused to take action, prompting the court to hire outside experts to do the job.
They never got the chance, since the Supreme Court put the case on pause later that same day, just before the lower court's deadline for legislators to submit a new map. While the majority didn't issue a written opinion, a concurrence by Brett Kavanaugh argued that the Alabama ruling could not be implemented because it had been issued too close to the election. (That preliminary decision was one reason among many why the Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday came as such a shock, especially since Kavanaugh supported it.)
It's not clear now whether the district court will give Republicans a second shot, or whether they'll turn back to their experts. There's a further wrinkle as well: While Supreme Court jurisprudence requires anyone bringing a Section 2 claim to show they could draw a district where the affected minority constitutes a majority of voters, any actual remedial map doesn't have to feature a strict majority. It's enough, rather, that members of this minority can still elect the candidate they prefer, which in practice means being able to count on "crossover" support from white voters.
In Alabama, though, there's precious little crossover voting to be found, as white voters almost always back Republicans while African Americans overwhelmingly support Democrats. The district court recognized this issue, citing "the ample evidence of intensely racially polarized voting" presented to it. But the judges still held out the possibility that the Black population could fall slightly under the 50% mark, ruling that "any remedial plan will need to include two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it." That will give mapmakers some added flexibility.
Ultimately, the final product will dramatically reshape Alabama's political landscape, ensuring that the number of Black representatives it sends to Congress reflects the proportion of Black people who live in the state. (At 27%, that's almost exactly two-sevenths.) It will also alter its partisan balance, turning a delegation that's included six Republicans and just one Democrat since the 2010 elections into one with a 5-2 split.
And beyond Alabama's borders, similar litigation could bring about similar transformations that could affect several more districts—enough, potentially, to erase the GOP's five-seat advantage in the House.
This post has been updated to add an illustration of Alabama’s Republican-drawn congressional map that was challenged for violating the Voting Rights Act.
This week on "The Downballot," we're joined by guest host Joe Sudbay and law professor Quinn Yeargain for a deep dive into major political developments in three states. First up is Arizona, where a key GOP retirement on the Board of Supervisors in jumbo Maricopa County gives Democrats an excellent chance to win their first majority since the 1960s. Then it's on to Arkansas, where citizens are working to overturn a Republican bill that purports to ban "critical race theory" in public schools by qualifying a referendum for the ballot. Finally, we hit Michigan, where Democrats just advanced a measure to have the state add its Electoral College votes to a multistate compact that would elect the president by the national popular vote.