The Supreme Court ruled on June 8 that the recently redistricted Alabama congressional map likely violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, or VRA, by diluting the votes of Black residents.
Section 2 tracks the language of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting voting practices or procedures that discriminate based on race, color or membership in certain language minority groups. Challenges to redistricting plans make up a large portion of the cases arising under Section 2, which is violated when “it is shown that the political processes leading to nomination or election in the State or political subdivision are not equally open to participation by members of a class of citizens.” The law applies if a class of people, in this case Black voters in Alabama, have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the voting process due to an act of the state legislature.
The plaintiffs in this case sued Alabama under Section 2, claiming the proposed redistricting plan diluted Black votes by creating only one majority Black district despite Black voters constituting over 25% of the electorate. The lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, concluding that the proposed map likely violated Section 2 and citing the 1986 Supreme Court case Thornburg v. Gingles, which set three preconditions to bringing a successful Section 2 case against a state:
- The minority group is large and geographically compact.
- The minority group shares political views.
- The white majority in the proposed redistricting plan votes together in a way that would enable the majority to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.
If a plaintiff can show these conditions are met, then the plaintiff must also show that the political process is not as open to minority voters as it is for voters in the racial majority.
Demographic information for Alabama supports the plaintiffs’ case. Most Black voters in the state are geographically located in a region referred to as the “Black Belt,” due to its majority Black population. Black voters in Alabama overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, while white Alabamans overwhelmingly support Republican candidates. The proposed congressional map broke up the Black Belt region, created one majority Black district and allocated portions of the rest of the region to districts with primarily white populations, a practice in redistricting called “packing and cracking.” These factors at face value fulfill the preconditions set forth in Gingles.
Alabama argued that only purposeful discrimination is prohibited under the Voting Rights Act. It urged the court to adopt a new standard for interpreting Section 2: a “race-neutral benchmark.” Alabama argued that computers can generate millions of districting options that comply with traditional districting requirements without using race as a factor. A mapmaker could then “calculate the median or average number of majority-minority districts in the entire multimillion-map set,” and that number would serve as the race-neutral benchmark. The state reasoned that because mapmakers used computer technology to create the maps without adding race as a factor in the algorithm, the maps were race-blind and not in violation of Section 2.
The court held that the Voting Rights Act prohibits discriminatory effects, not just discriminatory intent. This part of the ruling was the true heart of the case. If the justices accepted Alabama’s argument and ruled in the state’s favor, cases brought under Section 2 would be even more difficult to win, as petitioners would have to prove the state had discriminatory intent when designing a redistricting plan.
With the increased use of mapping software, respondents could use Alabama’s argument to request a dismissal, even though redistricting maps made with race-neutral criteria can still have massive, discriminatory effects. In rejecting the state’s argument in this case, the court preserved the power of Section 2 to enforce the 15th Amendment right to vote for minority populations nationwide.
With the case remanded to district court, the Alabama Legislature is now tasked with creating a second House district to provide an opportunity for a Black candidate to win. This will likely result in a new map just in time for the 2024 election.
Nicole Ezeh is a legislative specialist in NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Program.