After years of court rulings undermining the Voting Rights Act, a ruling in an Alabama redistricting case reaffirms the power of the 56-year-old law — and gives Democrats and civil rights groups hoping to fend off the gerrymandered cards.
The ruling by three federal judges ordered state lawmakers to rework their newly drawn maps of Congress. The Republican-led legislature violated the Voting Rights Act, the justices ruled, by not drawing more than one congressional district where black voters could elect a representative of their choice.
Republican Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall quickly appealed the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on Tuesday and requested a motion to stay the decision.
Still, the unanimous decision — signed by two justices appointed by former President Donald J. Trump and one by former President Bill Clinton — was a sign that a key weapon against racial discrimination in the redistricting could still be potent, even though other elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act have been hollowed out by Supreme Court rulings. The case was based on section 2 of the law, which prohibits racial discrimination in electoral procedures.
A similar case is already pending in Texas, and the success of the challenge in Alabama could open the door to lawsuits in other states such as South Carolina, Louisiana or Georgia. It could also serve as a warning to states like Florida that haven’t finished drawing their maps yet.
What you need to know about redistricting
“The Supreme Court has narrowed the tools that we in the voting rights community must use to deal with wrongdoing by authorities and government bodies,” said Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General, now chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting. Committee. “Section 2 so far has remained pretty much intact.”
The court’s decision in Alabama — where black residents make up 27% of the population, but black voters are the majority in just one of seven House districts — comes amid a polarized redistricting cycle, in which Republicans and Democrats have sought to entrench their political power across district lines for Congressional and legislative maps. In much of the country, this has created districts that bisect wards or wrap around counties to make the most of it.
Civil rights leaders and some Democrats argue that the process too often comes at the expense of growing minority communities. Black and Hispanic voters have a history of being “crammed” into single congressional districts or split into several in order to dilute their votes.
In 2013, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to suffrage law in Shelby v. Holder, ousting a key provision of Article 5. The “preclearance” provision required states with a history of discrimination in elections to obtain the judge’s approval. Department before changing voting procedures or redrawing maps. Last year, the court ruled that Section 2 would not protect against most new voting restrictions passed since the 2020 election.
Mr. Marshall, the attorney general of Alabama, argued that the only way to create two majority black congressional districts is to make race the main factor in drawing up the maps and called the court’s decision “unconstitutional application of the Voting Rights Act“.
“The ordinance will require the breed to be used at all times, in all places and for all districts,” Marshall wrote in his appeal Tuesday. “Based on the political geography of Alabama and the wide dispersal of Alabam’s black people, it is essentially impossible to draw a map such as those presented by plaintiffs unless traditional constituency principles give way to race.”
The case is very likely to go to the Supreme Court, where Justice Clarence Thomas has already indicated that he does not believe that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prevents racial gerrymandering, an issue that the court did not address when it struck down other parts of the law. law.
The Alabama ruling is the second this month in which a court has struck down a Republican-drawn map of Congress. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state’s legislative and congressional maps drawn by Republicans violated a state constitutional prohibition on partisan gerrymandering. The North Carolina Supreme Court has delayed the state’s primaries while a challenge to Republican-drawn maps is heard there.
How Redistricting Works in the United States
What is redistricting? It is the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. This happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect population changes.
Republicans have argued that the Alabama case, along with lawsuits by Democrats challenging GOP-drawn maps in other states, are just efforts to add Democratic seats to Congress and legislatures. States.
“This case is not about increasing minority representation, this case is about Democratic representation,” said Jason Torchinsky, chief counsel for the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “It’s a cynical manipulation of the Voting Rights Act to get there.”
In the 225-page general opinion, the three justices undermined Republican defenses of the maps that have been used in litigation across the country.
In some states where Republicans have controlled redistricting levers, including North Carolina, Texas, Ohio and Alabama, lawmakers said they did not consider any demographic data, including racial data. , when making maps. But the judges ignored claims that this “race-blind” map design shields the process from allegations of racial bias.
“The reason Section 2 is such a powerful law is that the effects test doesn’t give double digits on your intent,” said Allison Riggs, co-executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, an advocacy group civil rights. .
Redistricting lawyers said that view could reverberate in other cases, including in Texas.
“Alabama, like Texas, tried to argue that they just didn’t look at race before the map was fully drawn,” said Chad Dunn, a Democratic redistricting lawyer involved. in the Texas litigation. “This explanation is simply not credible. The ostrich defense with the head in the sand in states that have a long history of violations of voting rights law will not work.