Supreme Court to hear Alabama voting rights case that could impact Black voters everywhere

Alabama wants to set congressional representation in a way Black voters says dilutes their political representation.

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The U.S. Supreme Court today will hear a case that could upend voting rights and dilute the power of the Black vote in Alabama but potentially across the country.

In Merrill v. Milligan, the court will determine whether Alabama’s redistricting plan violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Plaintiffs argue that Alabama’s congressional map for its seven districts unfairly weakens the votes and influence of Black people, who make up nearly 27% of the state population.

Supreme Court building,
FILE – The Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 14, 2022. About 2 in 3 Americans say they favor term limits or a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices, according to a new poll that finds a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans saying they have “hardly any” confidence in the court. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The maps, as currently drawn, contain one majority-Black district. However, opponents of the plan argue that there should be two such districts based on the state’s Black population.

Evan Milligan, the lead plaintiff, told theGrio, “This case will be a defining moment for voting rights as traditional civic engagement in our country.”

The maps as drawn “are purposeful attempts to reduce the impact of Black voters and the preference and will of minority voters in Alabama,” Tish Gotell Faulks, the legal director of the Alabama ACLU, told theGrio.

Alabama’s legislature passed its redistricting maps in 2020, but a coalition of voters, including Milligan, sued the state, claiming the maps violated the Voting Rights Act. A federal court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor and enjoined the state from implementing the maps for the 2022 midterm election.

“We conclude that the Milligan plaintiffs are substantially likely to establish that the plan violates Section Two of the Voting Rights Act,” the United States District Court in Northern Alabama wrote in its preliminary injunction

The court also concluded that, based on several factors, “Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress.”

Secretary of State John H. Merrill appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the high court overturned the lower court ruling by a 5-4 vote and allowed Alabama to implement the maps in the November election. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the three liberal judges in the minority dissent.

Yurij Rudensky, senior counsel at the Brennan Institute, said Alabama’s legal argument comes down to a desire to weaken the Voting Rights Act, which would further disenfranchise voters who already have difficulty getting fair representation.

Alabama isn’t arguing against the merits of the lower court’s ruling, Rudensky said. Instead, the state wants the Supreme Court to “rewrite the Voting Rights Act to weaken it, to change decades of precedent (and) safeguards that have protected communities of color around the country … against discriminatory redistricting and other election schemes,” he explained.  

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits any voting “practice or procedure” that discriminates based on race and reinforces the 15th Amendment, which in 1870 granted Black men the right to vote.

Black Voters Matter Group Gathers In Selma For March To Montgomery
Marchers lead chants during the Black Voters Matter’s 57th Selma to Montgomery march on March 09, 2022 in Selma, Alabama. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The plaintiffs argue the state should have a second majority Black district to ensure fair representation for a demographic that grew faster than any other between 2010 and 2020, adding nearly 88,000 residents.

“Now, (Alabama) is saying that despite the growth of the Black community over the last 10 years, their population should be denied Congressional representation,” Milligan, the executive director of the coalition-building group Alabama Forward, said.

Alabama’s 1.3 million Black residents account for 27% of the state’s population. Currently, 16% of the districts (one in seven) have a majority Black population. Two of seven districts would increase the figure to nearly 29 percent.

But the state, among its arguments, says it drew race-neutral districts and called race-based districts unconstitutional.

“Requiring racial preferences in single-member districts exceeds any remedial measure the Fifteenth Amendment could authorize,” Alabama said in its brief

Rudensky referred to the race-neutral argument as “audacious” and flips the purpose of the voting rights act “on its head.” Alabama’s thinking “fails from a logical standpoint, that you could have a law that targets discriminatory schemes but can’t take race into account when undoing the discriminatory harm,” he added.

Another plaintiff, Letetia Jackson, lives in a Republican area of Alabama and remains frustrated by the lack of representation. 

“I have not had a congressional member come to our community, talk to us about resources, and who even care what our issues are,” Jackson told theGrio.

She said after the lawsuit, she did get an invitation to town hall events that weren’t in her community. 

“The stake, in this case, is huge, greater than just the state of Alabama,” Jackson said. “The outcome of this case will determine whether the language of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act will be upheld. Because if it isn’t, democracy, as we know it, the ability to vote and have elected representation as we know it, will be forever changed.”

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