The Supreme Court could soon act on a dispute over whether Alabama’s new voting map infringes on the rights of Black voters in the first major redistricting case to reach the 6-3 conservative majority court.
Pending before the justices is an emergency request by Alabama Republicans to block a lower court ruling which ordered the state’s voting districts to be redrawn after the court found Alabama’s plan likely runs afoul of the Voting Rights Act.
The case tees up a high-profile test for a Supreme Court that over the last decade has steadily narrowed the sweep of federal voting protections and now comprises a conservative supermajority that includes three justices nominated by former President Trump.
The central question is whether the mismatch between Alabama’s Black population and its disproportionately low representation in the U.S. House violates the law. Despite Black Alabamians accounting for around 27 percent of the state’s population, the voting map drawn by the GOP-held legislature following the 2020 census gives Black voters control of only 14 percent of the state’s congressional delegation, or one in seven Alabama seats in the U.S House.
Challengers to the new map brought suits in federal court alleging that the new voting districts reflected “a decades long pattern of the white-controlled Alabama Legislature” drawing maps that “discriminate against Black voters to maintain power” in violation of federal law and constitutional protections.
Groups contesting the redistricting plan allege that Republican state lawmakers engaged in map-drawing techniques known as “cracking” and “packing,” hallmark features of gerrymandering, the practice of designing voting districts for partisan advantage.
Cracking breaks up a geographic cluster of an opposing party’s likely voters and distributes them among several districts where their votes are unlikely to sway the outcome of a race.
Alternatively, packing those voters into a small number of districts virtually ensures the opposing party will be uncompetitive in most districts.
Under Section 2 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, mapmakers are generally prohibited from using these techniques to dilute the vote of racial minorities.
Challengers to Alabama’s redistricting plan argued in court papers that a fair map which accurately reflected the state’s demographics would give Black voters more say over two of the state’s seven House seats, instead of just one.
Last month, a three-judge panel that included two Trump nominees ruled in favor of the challengers and blocked the current congressional districts from being used in upcoming elections. The panel ordered Alabama to reconstruct their map to give Black voters greater power in two districts, setting a deadline of Feb. 7.
The ruling prompted Alabama’s Sec. of State John Merrill (R) and top GOP lawmakers to file an emergency request to the Supreme Court, which has received both parties’ briefings and could soon rule in the case.
Over the last decade, the court has issued several contentious decisions that have reduced the reach of the Voting Rights Act and barred federal courts from hearing disputes over partisan (as opposed to racial) gerrymandering claims.
David Daley, a voting rights advocate and expert on gerrymandering, said the Alabama case could be a watershed decision. If the Supreme Court sides with the challengers on the merits, he said, it could have far-reaching repercussions, perhaps leading to states like Louisiana and South Carolina redrawing their maps to give Black voters sway over electoral outcomes in more House races.
But a ruling upholding the current Alabama districts could gut Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act’s protections against racial gerrymandering.
“The fear of course would be that this court has been a wrecking crew on voting rights for the last decade,” he said, “and that they will take this opportunity to finish the job on section two.”