The Supreme Court just handed Democrats a massive victory in their quest to retake the House of Representatives in 2024. In a 5-4 decision that was as surprising as it was consequential, the high court agreed with a lower court’s ruling that the Voting Rights Act requires Alabama to draw a second predominantly Black congressional district.
Not only does that mean Democrats will very likely gain a seat in Alabama next year, but the decision will probably also force other states to redraw their congressional maps as well. And with Democrats needing to flip only five House seats in 2024 to win the majority,1 this decision could be the difference between Republican and Democratic control of the House.
Currently, Alabama has six majority-white congressional districts and one majority-Black congressional district. Because white voters in the South are heavily Republican and Black voters are heavily Democratic, in practice this means the state is virtually guaranteed to elect six Republicans and one Democrat.
But as the plaintiffs in this case demonstrated, it’s possible to draw a congressional map of Alabama where Black people are the largest racial group in two districts. In practice, this would mean the state would have two Democratic-leaning districts and five Republican-leaning districts, as in the hypothetical example below.
Historically, courts have used Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act — which states that members of racial minorities must have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice — to force states to draw districts where nonwhite voters are the dominant voting bloc whenever it is reasonably possible.2 In these cases, judges intervene to prevent what’s known as “vote dilution,” where a minority group’s voting power is decreased by packing them all into one district (as happened in Alabama) or spreading them out over several. But even though it was theoretically possible to create a second predominantly Black district, Alabama’s Republican legislature declined to do so when it redrew the state’s congressional map after the 2020 census — so voting-rights activists sued. And rather than reinterpret the Voting Rights Act to weaken those protections and allow Alabama’s map to stand, the Supreme Court upheld them.
This will force Alabama to redraw its congressional map for the 2024 election, and the result will probably look something like the example above, in which Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District goes from having a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean3 of R+34 to having a partisan lean of D+11. That would very likely result in Democrats picking up the seat.
But the biggest impact of this decision is the ripple effect it could have in other states. Alabama is not the only state where it is possible to draw an additional minority-opportunity district. For example, a few of the maps proposed during Louisiana’s redistricting process last year included two majority-Black (and thus solidly Democratic) districts and four majority-white (and thus solidly Republican) districts, like this one:
But the map that was ultimately enacted had just one majority-Black district versus five majority-white districts:
Voting-rights advocates sued over that map, and the case is pending. But in light of how the court ruled in Alabama — a very similar case — this case is expected to be resolved in Democrats’ favor too. And there are other racial-gerrymandering lawsuits under consideration in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas as well.
Not all of these lawsuits may be successful, and not all of them may result in a guaranteed gain for Democrats. (For example, it’s hard to draw anything more than a slightly Democratic-leaning seat in Arkansas.) And some may not be resolved in time to impact the 2024 elections.
But Democrats just banked at least one House pick-up for 2024 in Alabama, with a second very likely to come in Louisiana (although we don’t know when that ruling will come down or be enacted). And it’s very possible that courts will force the creation of new, predominantly nonwhite, Democratic-leaning seats in other states as well. If that happens three more times, that will mean Thursday’s decision alone could be enough to swing the House to Democrats in 2024.
Of course, the 2024 election will hang on many factors other than this. (Chances are that more than five seats will change hands next year, for reasons unrelated to redistricting!) And thanks to a state court decision, at least one state’s congressional map (North Carolina’s) is expected to be redrawn in a way that could add up to four new Republican seats. But now, after Thursday’s ruling, Democrats are newly empowered to fight back against that.