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Supreme Court's voting rights ruling in Alabama could change U.S. political landscape

Front row, left to right — Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Associate Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and Elena Kagan. Back row — Associate Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Supreme Court Historical Society
Front row, left to right — Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Associate Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and Elena Kagan. Back row — Associate Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision to strike down Alabama’s proposed redistricting map. This decision came as a shock to many, and political experts said this could change the voting landscape across the country.

In a 5-4 ruling last week, the high court found Alabama to be in likely violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Justices found that state legislatures denied African Americans in Alabama a fair chance of electing a representative. SCOTUS then ordered the creation of a second majority Black district in the Yellowhammer State.

This ruling was likely influenced by Alabama’s history of Black voter suppression. University of Alabama professor and voting rights expert Dr. Richard Fording said this history is more recent than some may think.

“All the way up to 2013, there were many documented cases where Alabama tried to change their election laws and [the] Justice Department said, ‘No, that's discriminatory.’" he said. "This sort of history of discrimination isn't necessarily just rooted in the deep past."

Gerrymandering on a political basis is a common practice among representatives. However, redistricting on the basis of race violates a constitutionally protected right. Dr. Fording said that it often can be difficult to distinguish between the two as many Black voters prefer the Democratic Party.

“It's harder to disentangle those two in the Deep South, but the Deep South also has the suspect history where you have some explicit cases of racially biased voting rights violations,” he said. "You get outside of the Deep South, race and party are still correlated, but they're not nearly as closely related to one another as they are in the Deep South. It becomes a little bit easier to disentangle those two things statistically when you're looking at the location of precincts, in which districts they are and at what the racial composition is.”

State lawyers representing Alabama officials argued that the districts were drawn with a “race neutral” approach. They pointed to maps cleared by the Justice Department following the 2000 and 2010 census.

Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the state’s argument. He wrote that the population of African Americans in District 7 is dense and compact enough to warrant the creation of an additional district.

Dr. Fording said he believes that this case sets a precedent that will largely deter future cases of racial gerrymandering.

“What's going to happen now is there are going to be a wave of lawsuits," he said. "There already are some in the works actually that will be affected by this case, but there'll be more. Louisiana is one case at the congressional level where there's already been litigation, and I would expect that might get resolved based on this case pretty quickly.”

Dr. Fording said this precedent will likely be applied to cases of a similar nature, such as one in Jefferson County involving a county commission districting plan. Other states such as Louisiana may follow suit.

Ben Smith is a student at the University of Alabama pursuing his COM-J masters degree. He's also an intern in the Alabama Public Radio newsroom.
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