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US Supreme Court Redistricting Decision May Reach Far Beyond Alabama

The Supreme Court at dusk in Washington, Oct. 22, 2021.
The Supreme Court at dusk in Washington, Oct. 22, 2021.

Black voters in the U.S. state of Alabama may have a bigger role in 2024 elections following a Supreme Court ruling that a Republican-drawn congressional map violated their rights to fair representation.

“The old congressional maps were undeniably unfair,” explained Collins Pettaway, a Black voter in Selma, Alabama, a city famous for its role in the fight for civil rights.

“Every voter has a right to have their voice heard, and up until this decision by the Supreme Court, Black Alabamans didn’t have that,” he told VOA. “The old maps made us feel like our votes didn’t matter, but now we have a real chance to empower Black voters and increase our representation in the state.”

Each U.S. state is broken into congressional districts of relatively equal population size. Densely populated areas have smaller districts. Sparsely populated areas have larger districts. Based on changing demographics in census results each decade, states are required to consider redrawing districts to ensure that voters are represented fairly.

Critics of the Alabama map say the redistricting process has been unfair. For decades, only one of the state’s seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives was in a district in which a majority of voters were Black. This even though more than 26% of Alabama’s voters are African American.

“It has made it nearly impossible for Black leaders to be elected to represent their communities, creating an even more prominent and intentional barrier to diversifying Alabama’s political leadership,” said DeJuana Thompson, president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

“A participatory government is only possible when those making the laws, enforcing the laws, and subject to the laws have equity. We’re a little closer to that now and it’s going to ensure a more engaged and motivated electoral process. This ruling is a great thing for Alabama.”

Surprise or expected?

For a Supreme Court with a conservative majority, the decision was largely unexpected, especially given recent rulings more aligned with priorities of the Republican Party.

“I was very surprised by the Court’s decision,” Jay Williams, a consultant for several top Republican politicians told VOA. “The Supreme Court has trended rightward on this issue, and I thought that would continue.

“Unfortunately, I think this decision is going to cause some real harm,” he continued. “It perpetuates a false notion that southern states are inherently racist in their decision making. It’s patently false and incredibly pretentious to promote this viewpoint.”

Past decision making in southern states led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended many barriers to African American voters including poll taxes and literacy tests. New hurdles quickly took their place.

Cracking, then packing

“Southern states with a history of disenfranchising Black voters responded by drawing congressional districts in irregular shapes that managed to spread concentrations of urban Black voters across several different districts,” explains University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

“The result was that none of the districts were majority Black,” he added, “making it nearly impossible for voters of color to elect Black leaders.

This was known as “cracking” the Black vote.

The Supreme Court sought to stop that practice with its 1986 unanimous decision in the Thornburg v. Gingles ruling that states must add a majority-minority district if the minority population is sufficiently large and compact enough for a new district, if the minority population is sufficiently cohesive to vote as a bloc, and if the dissipated minority bloc’s political preference is frequently defeated by a bloc of majority voters.

The result was new majority-minority districts across the country, including one in Alabama.

“Now that ‘cracking’ was no longer possible, they switched to ‘packing,’” Bullock told VOA. “In other words, Republican-led legislatures would draw districts, again in irregular shapes, so that all of the Black voters were ‘packed’ into one district. That’s where we are today. They concede one district, but they make the minority vote negligible in all the others.”

Beyond Alabama

This month’s decision found cause for a second majority-minority Congressional district in Alabama to provide fair representation for Black residents there. Lawmakers in Montgomery now have until July 21 to redraw the congressional map to meet this requirement. As with many Supreme Court decisions, the impact stretches beyond any one state.

“Lawsuits have already been filed in Louisiana and Georgia, and I expect the same will soon happen in Texas, Florida, potentially New York, and maybe elsewhere,” Bullock said. “Some states, like the Carolinas, might not meet the requirements, but I think you could see enough seats change in 2024 to flip the House of Representatives to Democratic control if all else remains equal.”