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How Alabama’s Gerrymander Could Hurt Black Political Power Across The Country

Alabama’s contested congressional map is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. But regardless of how the case shakes out, it could change voting rights across the South.


Nathaniel Rakich: Alabama is perhaps best known as the epicenter of the civil rights movement. But nearly 60 years after voting-rights advocates marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Black Alabamians are still underrepresented in Congress.

Under the state’s new, Republican-drawn congressional map, only one out of the state’s seven districts is predominantly Black. But the 2020 census found that Black people make up almost two-sevenths of Alabama’s voting age population.

So this map is probably a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which passed partly as a result of the marches in Selma and elsewhere in Alabama. While minority groups aren’t automatically entitled to proportional representation in the House, the Voting Rights Act does require that they have equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.

This has been widely interpreted to mean that states must draw districts where nonwhite voters are the dominant voting bloc wherever possible. And in Alabama, it’s readily possible to draw two congressional districts that are majority Black.

So voting-rights advocates sued over the map, and in January, they got the ruling they were hoping for: A three-judge panel found that the map was most likely an illegal racial gerrymander and struck it down, ordering the Alabama Legislature to draw a new map that “include[s] two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”

Alabama promptly appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case — but they won’t come out with a decision this year. And, in the meantime, the court reinstated the gerrymandered map — which means it will be used in the 2022 midterm elections.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will have huge national implications. If it agrees that Alabama’s map violates the Voting Rights Act, it won’t just lead to another Black-opportunity seat in Alabama. Multiple other Southern states — like Louisiana and South Carolina — could be forced to draw additional Black seats as well.

But given the Supreme Court’s conservative lean, it’s more likely that the court will uphold Alabama’s current map. And it’s hard to see how it could do that while maintaining the current interpretation of the Voting Rights Act. So it’s possible the court will set a new precedent for the act — one that significantly weakens its requirement to draw minority districts.

The Voting Rights Act has been one of the most successful laws in U.S. history; just take a look at the number of Black congresspeople elected since the law was passed in 1965! But the Supreme Court has gutted major sections of the act in recent years, to the point where its requirement for minority districts is one of the only meaningful protections left. An adverse ruling in this case could be the final nail in its coffin. The Voting Rights Act was born partially as a result of demands for more voting rights in Alabama, and ironically, it could die that way too.

 

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

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