The Conversation: Court rules for Black voters, protects Voting Rights Act

In a surprising ruling, the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court threw out Republican-drawn congressional districts in Alabama that a lower court had ruled discriminated against Black voters, thus violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At issue in the case, Allen v. Milligan, was whether the power of Black voters in Alabama was diluted by dividing them into districts where white voters dominate.

After the 2020 census, the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew the state’s congressional districts to include only one out of seven in which Black voters would likely be able to elect a candidate of their choosing. Black residents make up about 27% of the state’s population, and voting rights advocates argued they thus deserved two congressional districts.

As a sociologist who studies race and ethnicity, and has followed efforts throughout American history to use redistricting to disenfranchise Black voters, I set about considering what this means for Black voters in Alabama.

Most directly, it requires the Legislature to redraw Alabama’s congressional districts to include two reflecting its Black population.

But Democrats believe it will, through other pending cases, also require Louisiana and Georgia to create new majority-minority districts prior to the next congressional elections. That would serve to protect the last vestiges of voter rights protections established in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The act targeted racist measures Southern states were using to prevent Black people from voting. Those practices included literacy tests, poll taxes and voter intimidation.

Prior to the act’s passage, less than a quarter of voting-age Blacks were registered to vote across the nation. By 1969, the figure had risen to 61%.

The court ruling will set an important precedent for redistricting cases alleging discrimination as voters and their representatives challenge state maps.

So, why was this decision considered a surprise?

Because Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh teamed up with the court’s three liberal justices to produce the 5-4 decision.

In his opinion for the majority, Roberts traced the importance of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. He explained how racially motivated voter suppression after the Civil War led to the initial passage of the act.

In order to avoid creating racially designated legislative districts, Congress established that the electoral process should allow for the equal participation of all racial groups, Roberts wrote.

Roberts’ thinking in Allen vs. Milligan is radically different from the one he held when he was an attorney serving in the U.S. Department of Justice during the Reagan administration. Then, Roberts wrote 25 memos in opposition to the VRA, specifically in reference to Section 2.

Only Roberts knows why his perspective has changed over time. But perhaps Alabama went too far, too fast, and in a manner than seemed too nakedly partisan.

“States shouldn’t let race be the primary factor in deciding how to draw boundaries but it should be a consideration,” Roberts wrote. “The line we have drawn is between consciousness and predominance.”

Roberts went further by citing the repugnant racial history of Alabama.

Even as the Black population increased to over 27% of the state’s population over the past 30 years, the number of Black districts remained at one, largely because white conservatives used their control of the Legislature to dilute the strength of Black voters.

Is the Voting Rights Act still under attack?

Yes. While it represents a breath of fresh air for voting rights activists, this ruling does not mean that white conservatives will cease their attack.

GOP-controlled congressional maps diluting or eliminating Black districts have been drawn in multiple states, including Louisiana, Georgia, Ohio and Texas. These efforts could significantly alter the 2024 electoral map.

Several lawsuits are currently working their way through the courts across the country in states such as Florida, Arkansas, South Carolina and New York.

There are, of course, also other obstacles standing in the way of full Black voting power. Across the country, there has been a concerted effort to restrict voting and control the election machinery and even the outcome of these votes.

Dozens of Republican-controlled states have passed a series of laws that will curtail voting of Blacks and many other Americans.

Florida has made registration harder. Nebraska has enacted more stringent voter identification measures. Mississippi has placed new restrictions on absentee ballots. Georgia has increased voter scrutiny by allowing any citizen to challenge voter qualifications.

In all, 21 states have passed at least 42 restrictive voting-rights laws in just the last two years. These restrictive provisions would make it harder for eligible Blacks to vote.

These laws are being vigorously challenged by groups such as the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters, Fair Fight Action and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are mobilizing protests, organizing voters and launching legal challenges. The new Supreme Court ruling raises hopes, but the overall prospects remain unclear.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.