When the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Alabama’s congressional map had diluted the power of Black voters, it was a long-sought victory for voting rights activists, who had grown increasingly alarmed at the court’s previous decisions that have hollowed out the Voting Rights Act.
The decision also is likely to reverberate across the South, and could force multiple states with pending Voting Rights Act challenges to redraw their own maps.
In Alabama, a state with a tortured history of Jim Crow laws and voter suppression, the court’s ruling against the legislatively drawn maps was a significant victory for Black voters. The court affirmed a lower court’s decision to create a second congressional district “in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”
And the ruling offered many Alabama voters a much-needed assurance that the Voting Rights Act’s other protections held strong, especially in a state that was the origin of one of the most damaging decisions to the landmark act.
Nearly a decade ago, a case out of Shelby County, Ala., led to one of the most sweeping decisions against the Voting Rights Act, effectively neutering the law that had required federal approval before states with a history of discrimination could change their voting laws.
That combined history of discrimination and legal defeats left many Black leaders in Alabama uneasy about the case before the Supreme Court, concerned that it could erode civil rights protections once again, instead of bolstering them.
Evan Milligan, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case and executive director of Alabama Forward, a civil rights organization, said he questioned whether this case was the right one to pursue. “But ultimately it felt like the right move to be involved,” he said, “and this outcome affirms that decision.”
So while it took a battle all the way to the Supreme Court to get a second majority-Black district out of a seven-seat congressional delegation in a state where 25 percent of the voting-age population is Black, Black leaders in Alabama hailed the victory. They said it was a reminder to continue the fight for voting rights and civil rights — especially in the South.
“It’s a new day and it’s a new day especially for the Deep South,” said Representative Terri A. Sewell, the lone Democrat in Alabama’s congressional delegation. Ms. Sewell, who is Black, has pushed for change in Alabama’s maps, even if it means weakening her own district. “I’m excited about what it means for African American voters in my state. But I’m also excited about what it means for minority voters at large in this nation. They deserve fair representation and representation does matter.”
The ruling could result in multiple Southern states having their maps struck down through pending Voting Rights Act challenges.
In Louisiana, where Black voters make up one-third of the population, a case before the Supreme Court had been put on hold pending the Alabama decision. Now a second majority-Black district could be drawn.
“We know that in compliance with the principles of the Voting Rights Act, Louisiana can and should have a congressional map where two of our six districts are majority Black,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, a Democrat, said on Thursday. “Today’s decision reaffirms that.”
The Supreme Court decision is also expected to send legislators in Georgia back to the drawing board for their congressional maps. On Thursday, a federal judge in a pending Georgia case asked both parties to provide supplemental materials in light of the new ruling.
And in Texas, where Republicans drew an aggressive gerrymander that could lock in power for a decade, nine cases in the federal court system could be affected by Thursday’s decision, according to a tracker kept by the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank.
Across the South, the decision raises the prospect of adding three majority-Black districts in reliably red states, changes that would upend what will be a pitched battle for control of the House of Representatives next year.
And in an era of racially polarized voting, where 87 percent of Black voters nationally voted for Joseph R. Biden Jr., according to exit polls, adding three majority-Black districts would increase Democrats’ odds of retaking control of the chamber.
Democrats are also hopeful that the decision will keep Republican legislators in North Carolina in check, as they are likely to redraw the state’s congressional maps after a recent state supreme court ruling.
Other states “now need to actually comply with the Voting Rights Act,” said John Bisognano, the president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. He expressed relief at the outcome, pointing to “an alternative reality in which this just went a different direction, and there was obvious concern that they could have taken a different direction.”
In Alabama, voting rights advocates and local leaders said the ruling could reverse a sense of apathy that has pervaded the state, across the political spectrum, as many residents had come to feel that elections were foregone conclusions and their ballots made little difference.
“It’s a great day in Alabama,” said Bobby Singleton, a Democrat and African American from Greensboro who serves as the State Senate minority leader. But Mr. Singleton also said: “Racism is still alive and well in the state of Alabama, and the Supreme Court was able to see it.”
Robyn Hyden, the executive director of Alabama Arise, which is focused on policies supporting poor residents, said she had been uncertain of what to expect from the court, but she felt there was a solid case to make. “Their reasons and their arguments were sound to me,” she said.
She argued that the geography of the Seventh Congressional District, represented by Ms. Sewell and reaching across a broad portion of the state, illustrated what made the map so problematic. “The idea that someone who lives in North Birmingham has the same political interests as someone who lives all the way down in Clark County, which is near the Gulf Coast of the state, is pretty ridiculous,” she said. “It’s four hours away.”
“There are people in that district who are in the Black Belt, which is the most impoverished area of our state,” she added. “There’s people in that district who live in the largest cities in our state. It was really hard to think about how gerrymandered Birmingham and Montgomery have been, and how it has held back our regions from having political representation.”
Richard Fausset and Bryant K. Oden contributed reporting.
Nick Corasaniti covers national politics. He was one of the lead reporters covering Donald Trump’s campaign for president in 2016 and has been writing about presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral campaigns for The Times since 2011. @NYTnickc • Facebook
Rick Rojas is a national correspondent covering the American South. He has been a staff reporter for The Times since 2014. @RaR
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