How A Court Ruling In Alabama Could Boost Black Political Power Throughout The South

On January 24, Alabama became the second state (after Ohio) to receive a new convention card crushed in court. But while Ohio’s map was thrown out by the state Supreme Court for violating the state constitution, Alabama’s map was overturned by three federal judges who found the map under-represented black voters in Congress. That’s a significant distinction, as the Supreme Court must weigh, potentially reshaping federal law in the process. As a result, the ruling could resonate well beyond Alabama. It could also open the door for increased non-white representation in other states — if it stands the appeal.

For a refresher, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that partisan maneuvers were a political issue not for federal courts to decide. However, you can still hear cases related to racial Gerrymandering – ie whether a card discriminates against voters of a certain race. Alabama asks just such a question. Back in November 2021, the Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature passed a new congressional map that created six majority-White districts and only one majority-Black district. Civil rights attorneys sued, arguing that black voters in the state were entitled to a second constituency under the Voting Rights Act, the landmark law outlawing racial discrimination in voting.

Under Section 2 of the VRA, it is illegal to deny members of an ethnic minority an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. That was broadly interpreted This means states must, whenever possible, draw congressional districts where nonwhite voters are the dominant voting bloc to adequately ensure they can choose their preferred candidate.

And as plaintiffs’ proposed maps show, it is perfectly possible to map out two predominantly black congressional districts in Alabama. For example, in Plaintiffs’ Illustrative Plan A, the 2nd District VAP is 50.0 percent Black and the 7th District VAP is 50.3 percent Black.

While the VRA specifically states that racial minorities are not automatically entitled to a number of seats proportional to their percentage of the population, Black people make up more than 25 percent of Alabama’s VAP, much larger than the proportion of congressional districts in which they predominate (14 percent). And many black votes would have been wasted under the toppled map, with the majority-white 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wards all having at least 24 percent black VAP.

As a result, judges gave the Alabama Legislature until Feb. 11 to draw a new map that “includes[s] two districts where black voters either have a voting-age majority or come pretty close.” But until then, it’s possible the judges’ decision will be overturned anyway. Alabama has appealed the verdict to the Supreme Courtand argued that the card should be reinstated because a new one would disrupt preparations for the state’s upcoming primary and misprioritize race in the redistribution.

The High Court has yet to signal what it will do with the appeal. But the possibilities are wide: the case could result in a very favorable outcome for liberals, a very favorable outcome for conservatives, or anything in between.

At one end of the spectrum, the Supreme Court could uphold the lower court’s ruling, which would have the immediate effect of adding a new Black Opportunity congressional seat in Alabama. (In practice, this would also add a Democrat and subtract a Republican from Alabama’s congressional delegation.) It would also have ramifications throughout the Deep South. If this ruling stands, it could inspire courts to create additional black opportunity districts in Louisiana and perhaps South Carolina as well.

Currently, only one of Louisiana’s six congressional districts is predominantly black, despite the state having one of the largest black populations in the country: more than 30 percent of the VAP. With the state’s redistribution process just getting underway this week, Democrats have already proposed several congressional passes that would add a black-majority seat along the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge. For example, under Senate Bill 4, the 2nd Circuit would have a VAP that is 51.5 percent Black and the 5th Circuit would have a VAP that is 50.5 percent Black.

How A Court Ruling In Alabama Could Boost Black Political Power Throughout The South 2

Since Republicans control the Louisiana legislature (and these cards would eliminate a Republican member of Congress), they may not be inclined to pass any of these cards. But Governor John Bel Edwards is a Democrat, and already is come in favor a second predominantly black district. Republicans also lack the House numbers to override a possible veto (though to do so would only require convincing two independents or conservative Democrats to side with them). That means Louisiana’s redistribution is likely to be decided by local courts, which would likely follow the Supreme Court’s example and give the green light to a second Black Opportunity District — if the Alabama High Court decides to do so.

Meanwhile, South Carolina has already enacted a new congressional map with only one predominantly black district out of seven, despite being the Palmetto State almost a quarter Black by VAP. However, simple geographic factors can make it difficult to persuade a court to order a redraw here. while it is possible to draw two congressional districts for South Carolina with VAPs that are about 40 percent black, it’s difficult to pull two majority-Black districts without some severe contortions.

According to Supreme Court precedent, plaintiffs in a VRA new district case must demonstrate that the minority group is “sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a one-member district.” (Confusingly, a district does not have to be majority-minority to do this retain with the VRA, but it must be possible to draw one for a non-majority-minority district to join hurt it.) South Carolina may not pass that test in the eyes of a court — although in the event of a favorable Supreme Court outcome, liberals may very well try their luck, just in case.

With or without South Carolina, however, if the Supreme Court upholds Alabama’s ruling, it would be a significant boon for black representation in Congress — and for a region that has historically repressed black voters. It could potentially result in two, maybe three, new black congressmen from the Deep South. As a result, up to 18 percent of U.S. representatives from states that formed the former confederation could be black — the most in U.S. history.

Again, however, this is the best scenario for minority representation. Given the Supreme Court’s conservative ideology, the judges could instead overturn the lower court’s ruling and restore Alabama’s 6-1 chart. It is even possible that in doing so they are actually weakening the VRA’s protection of minority districts. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has already done so neutered § 5 of the law and other safeguards under Section 2 diluted; in extreme cases, Section 2 could be reinterpreted to make it even easier for states to draw discriminatory maps.

However, there is still a lot of uncertainty as to what the court will do, and as we have said, the decision could fall somewhere between the two extremes that we have outlined in this article. We’ll just have to wait and see; a decision could be made any day now.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Geoffrey Skelley contributed to the research.

Leave a Comment