WASHINGTON (CN) — With Americans refocusing on elections ahead of November, the Supreme Court is set to cast its ballot on a redistricting fight out of Alabama, deciding how much power Black voters get to elect their representatives of choice.
On Tuesday the justices will hear arguments in Merrill v. Milligan, the nation's latest undertaking in the struggle to preserve free and fair elections. The case asks if it is discriminatory when forming congressional districts to consider race as a means of giving minority voters equal opportunity.
“The state is asking the court to eliminate all consideration from the racial redistricting process, essentially, to make it entirely race-neutral,” said Jonathan Diaz, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “If the court adopts the state's position, it would really severely curtail Section 2's ability to ensure that minority voters can elect representatives of their choice.”
Following the 2020 census, Alabama’s legislature proposed a new congressional map. The redesigned map cleaved the Black Belt — a region of Alabama named for its fertile black soil and home to a majority of residents who are descendants of enslaved individuals — into four districts, splitting the county and city of Montgomery into two districts. This region holds significance in the fight against discrimination and is home to historical events such as the Montgomery bus boycott and Bloody Sunday. By dividing up this region, Black Alabamians would represent the majority in only one district despite making up 27% of Alabama’s voting-age population.
Three groups, including the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed lawsuits attempting to block the use of the new map. The suits said the new map violated the Equal Protection Clause and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The suits alleged that Black voters in the southern half of Alabama had unequal access to the political process.
A three-judge panel ruled that the 2021 map violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered legislators to include an additional Black majority district. Alabama brought an emergency appeal in January, asking the Supreme Court to block the map redraw. The justices ultimately split 5-4 in favor of Alabama, putting the lower court ruling on hold and allowing the diluted map to take effect. The justices also agreed to add the case to their docket later in the year.
On Tuesday, the justices will hear arguments on whether Alabama’s 2021 redistricting map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Congress deemed the Voting Rights Act a necessity after nearly a century of voter suppression against Black Americans, despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment. Enacted in 1965, the Voting Rights Act sought to end the denial of the right to vote based on race. Section 2 targeted voting practices that denied U.S. citizens the right to vote based on race, including the dilution of votes by the way electoral maps are drawn.
In 1986, the Supreme Court created a multipart test to satisfy Section 2’s requirements on illegal vote dilution occurred in Thornburg v. Gingles. The two main steps to this test are demonstrating that racially polarized voting has denied minority voters an equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidate and that the political process is therefore not “equally open” to minority voters. The district court used this framework to conclude that Alabama’s 2021 map likely violated Section 2.
Alabama claims that districts are equally open when they are drawn neutrally, and just because a majority-minority district can be drawn doesn’t mean it must be. The state challenges the preconditions set out by the court’s precedent in Gingles and claims its 2021 map does not violate the Voting Rights Act.