In a surprising ruling on June 8, 2023, 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 and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At issue in the case that was before the court, 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 Alabama 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 that they deserved not one but two political districts.
Rodney Coates is a sociologist who studies race and ethnicity and has followed efforts by politicians throughout American history to use redistricting to disenfranchise Black voters. The Conversation asked him four questions about the ruling and its implications.
The decision means that Black voters in Alabama, and across the country, will retain the last remaining voter rights protections. Specifically, Alabama lawmakers will need to redraw their legislative districts to include two districts that reflect the Black population.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to prohibit racist practices by Southern states that were used to prevent Black people from voting. Those measures included literacy tests, poll taxes and voter intimidation.
Prior to the law’s passage, less than a quarter of voting-age Blacks were registered to vote across the nation. In 1969, that figure had risen to 61%.
The ruling will also set an important precedent for redistricting cases alleging discrimination as voters and their representatives challenge state maps. Among Democrats there is the belief that the ruling will impact pending cases and require Alabama, as well as Louisiana and Georgia, to add new majority-minority districts prior to the next congressional elections.
The ruling in Allen vs. Milligan was a surprise because of the voting by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh with the three liberal justices.
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 1965 Voting Rights Act.