Alabama Defies the Voting Rights Act

With control of the U.S. House on the line in 2024, Republicans are fighting for every last gerrymandered seat.

Updated on September 5, 2023 at 2:30 P.M. PST: On Tuesday, a federal court once again struck down Alabama’s congressional map, ruling that the redrawn map failed to create the second majority-Black district required by the Supreme Court. The three-judge panel ordered that the new map be independently drawn by a court-appointed special master, rather than the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. 

“We have now said twice that this Voting Rights Act case is not close,” wrote the judges. “And we are deeply troubled that the State enacted a map that the State readily admits does not provide the remedy we said federal law requires.”

Alabama residents Kabrina Anthony (left) and her mother Calandra Anthony attend a Black Voters Matter event at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on June 19, 2021—part of a Freedom Ride bus tour for voting rights, as Republican political leaders in several states proposed new voting laws to limit voter access. (Joshua Lott / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This analysis was originally published by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Black voters in Alabama won a major victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in June. The high Court ruled that Republican lawmakers violated the Voting Rights Act when they redrew the state’s congressional map after the 2020 census and failed to create a second Black district.

The ruling was sweet—in recent years, most voting rights cases at the Supreme Court have not gone well for advocates. This summer, in fact, is the 10th anniversary of the Court’s infamous decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted an important provision of the Voting Rights Act that subjected states with a history of discrimination to extra scrutiny when adopting new redistricting plans or changing their election laws. With that track record, most observers were preparing for the worst as a decision in the Alabama case drew near.

Instead, Chief Justice John Roberts’ 5-4 opinion not only affirmed the lower court’s decision against Alabama but did so with vigor, strongly confirming the Court’s earlier precedents in the area.

If you stopped watching there, you might be forgiven for thinking that Alabama, thoroughly chastened, would have quickly gone about redrawing its congressional map to add a second district “in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it” (to quote from the trial court’s opinion about what is needed to fix the map).

But no. Rather, in a move reminiscent of the state’s open defiance of federal court rulings in the 1960s ordering desegregation, the Alabama legislature passed a map with one Black-majority district and a second district—supposedly fixing the problems found by the Court—in which Black voters constitute merely 40 percent of the population. The new map was speedily signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey (R), who said in a statement that the legislature knew “our state, our people and our districts better than the federal courts or activist groups.”

Well, spoiler alert: In a state where voting is as starkly racially polarized as Alabama, a district where only 40 percent of voters are Black will elect the white community’s preferred Republican candidate time and time again. (Fun bonus fact: Alabama’s Solicitor General Edmund LaCour, who is representing the state in court in litigation over the map, is apparently moonlighting as the state’s map drawer.)

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is reported to have personally called Alabama lawmakers, urging them not to pass a legally compliant map.

The lower court overseeing the Alabama case held a hearing earlier this month to decide whether to approve the state’s new map or order a court-appointed special master to redraw it. Another round of appeals to the Supreme Court is all but inevitable.

And the flouting of courts isn’t just happening in Alabama. In Louisiana, where a federal court similarly ruled that the state needs to create an additional Black congressional district, lawmakers are taking steps to avoid redrawing the map by relitigating “concerns” about the constitutionality of the court’s ruling.

So what’s Alabama’s (and Louisiana’s) end game?

Part of it is politics. With control of the U.S. House on the line in 2024, Republicans are fighting for every last gerrymandered seat. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is reported to have personally called Alabama lawmakers, urging them not to pass a legally compliant map. It also has become clear that Republican elected officials and operatives aren’t giving up on attacking the Voting Rights Act or on their vision of a “color-blind Constitution.”

Ten years ago in Shelby County, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Things have changed in the South.”

In many ways, they have. But, sadly, Alabama and Louisiana illustrate some of the ways they haven’t.

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Michael Li serves as senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, Li practiced law at Baker Botts L.L.P. in Dallas for 10 years. He was the author of a widely cited blog on redistricting and election law issues that the New York Times called “indispensable.” He is a regular writer and commentator on election law issues, appearing on PBS Newshour, MSNBC, and NPR, and in print in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Roll Call, Vox, National Journal, Texas Tribune, Dallas Morning News and San Antonio Express-News, among others. In addition to his election law work, Li previously served as executive director of Be One Texas, a donor alliance that oversaw strategic and targeted investments in nonprofit organizations working to increase voter participation and engagement in historically disadvantaged African American and Hispanic communities in Texas.