The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Alabama had diluted the power of Black voters and must redraw the state’s voting map.
It was a surprise decision, coming from a court whose conservative majority had signaled it was suspicious of a Voting Rights Act precedent that Alabama said requires legislatures to prioritize race over traditional redistricting techniques.
The case centers around Alabama’s Republican-controlled Legislature’s attempt to redraw the state’s Congressional voting map, based on the 2020 census.
The state has seven congressional districts, and its voting-age population is about 27 percent Black. The new map maintained a single district, reports The New York Times, in which Black voters made up a majority.
The Alabama redistricting fiasco turned into a pitched battle across the country. Civil rights leaders contend the redistricting process often disadvantages growing minority communities. Republican state officials say the Constitution allows only a limited role for the consideration of race in drawing voting districts.
The arguments centered around Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act which bars any voting procedure that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race.”
As amended in 1982, Section 2 now provides that a voting process or requirement that results in the abridgment of the right to vote on account of a voter’s race, color, or language minority status is unlawful, whether or not an intent to discriminate can be proven.
The SCOTUS ruling upholds a decision by a three-judge panel that threw out Alabama’s new congressional map, which included only one congressional district with a majority of Black voters even though African Americans make up more than a quarter of the state’s population.
But the bottom line in all the arguments, both pro and con was the fear that a decision by SCOTUS could end up undermining the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965. Thankfully, the act emerged unscathed.
The 5-4 majority opinion
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the 5-to-4 ruling. He was joined by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal members, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
“We are content to reject Alabama’s invitation to change existing law,” Roberts said, according to CNN News.
The chief justice wrote that there were legitimate concerns that the law “may impermissibly elevate race in the allocation of political power within the states.” He added: “Our opinion today does not diminish or disregard these concerns. It simply holds that a faithful application of our precedents and a fair reading of the record before us do not bear them out here.”
“A district is not equally open, in other words, when minority voters face – unlike their majority peers – bloc voting along racial lines, arising against the backdrop of substantial racial discrimination within the State, that renders a minority vote unequal to a vote by a nonminority voter. ”
This decision is a real about-face for Roberts, given that 10 years ago, the chief justice effectively gutted a separate section of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing election laws.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in part of a dissent that was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Amy Coney Barrett, asserted that the Voting Rights Act should not apply to redistricting.
Thomas wrote that the question is whether the Voting Rights Act “requires the State of Alabama to intentionally redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control a number of seats roughly proportional to the black share of the State’s population.” The law, he said, “demands no such thing, and, if it did, the Constitution would not permit it.”