With no Justice filing a dissent, the Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for a lower federal court to draw a new election map that probably will assure Alabama’s black voters a chance to elect a second member of the U.S. House of Representatives next year. Since 1992, they have had only one House district where they had voting control.
The potential for a wider impact of the Court’s action is that black voters in other Southern states may also get similar opportunities, enhancing the prospect that the Democrats could gain a majority in the House in next year’s elections.
At midday today, the Court issued two orders, one sentence in each, rejecting two requests by Alabama state officials to block lower court rulings that will lead to creation of two congressional districts in which black voters will have a majority, or close to that, and thus likely control of the outcome. The new election map will be drawn by a court-appointed specialist team; that result will be subject to testing in the federal courts in advance of the next election in 2024.
The Justices’ two orders did not explain why they had acted, but one probable explanation is that at least some of the Justices believed that the Alabama legislature had defied a ruling the Supreme Court itself had issued last June, appearing to require that the state have two, not one, House districts controlled by black voters. The legislature had reacted to that decision by, for a second time, creating only one House districts where blacks were assured of a chance to elect a Representative of their choosing.
It is important to note, however, that the Court’s action today was not a final decision on the dispute over Alabama’s delegation in the House of Representatives. State officials can still pursue new appeals in the Court to challenge the new maps that will now be drawn, but that may be too late to prevent the creation of two new black-controlled districts for use in the 2024 election.
Alabama has seven seats in the House. Although blacks make up about 27 percent of the state’s voting population, black voters in the state have previously controlled only 14 percent of the state’s delegation. The new maps very likely will double that, to about 28 percent. (While the use of refined computer data can enable map-makers to draw election districts that may control election outcomes, race can not be the sole factor in such line-drawing. Federal civil rights law, though, requires that voters of a racial minority be given an equal opportunity to choose candidates of their choice, and election district lines can be drawn to make that happen.)
State officials have argued repeatedly in the Supreme Court and lower federal courts that re-drawing of congressional district lines must be done by race-neutral methods, or the resulting maps will be a form of racial preference in violation of the Constitution mandate of racial equality. Last June, in the Supreme Court’s ruling based upon a part of the 1964 civil rights law, the Justices by a vote of 5-to-4, rejected that argument.
That ruling last June was something of a surprise, because the Court’s majority in recent years has issued several rulings that provided narrow interpretations of federal voting rights law, leading to efforts in Congress – so far, unsuccessful – to enact new protections for voting rights.