On June 8, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Allen v. Milligan. In a historic win for voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in Allen v. Milligan in favor of Black voters, affirming the district court’s order striking down Alabama’s 2021-enacted congressional map for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for diluting Black political power, and requiring that Alabama redraw its congressional map.
By packing and cracking Black voters in the state, including those residing in the historic Black Belt community, the map passed by the state legislature denied Black voters an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in all but one of seven districts even though they make up 27 percent of the voting-age population. In its decision, the court also affirmed that under Section 2 of the VRA, race can be considered in the redistricting process to provide equal opportunities to communities of color and ensure they are not packed and cracked in a way that impermissibly weakens their voting strength.
The court’s decision is a historic win in the fight for voting rights in the face of countless continued attacks on democracy. In its decision reaffirming the legal test for evaluating claims under the VRA first adopted in the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the overwhelming evidence of discrimination presented by the plaintiffs in the district court.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Alabama’s 2021 map, the Alabama Legislature convened in July and created a new map that is also discriminatory and fails to comply with the Voting Rights Act, prompting plaintiffs to continue their challenge. In September 2023, a federal court rejected Alabama’s new congressional map due to its failure to remedy the violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, ordering a special master redraw the map to include two districts where Black voters have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. While this ruling is a promising step in the fight for a fair map, the Legislature’s outright defiance at the hearing indicates that it is far from over. The three-judge panel called out the Legislature for defying its order, assigning to a special master the task of drawing a remedial map that adds a second opportunity district to give Black voters the representation they deserve.
Alabama voters, civil rights groups, and faith groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging Alabama’s newly drawn political maps for state legislative and congressional districts. Merrill v. Milligan was brought on behalf of Evan Milligan, Khadidah Stone, Letetia Jackson, Shalela Dowdy, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP.
The lawsuit charges that the congressional redistricting map drawn by the state legislature denies Black residents equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of choice. The congressional map intentionally “packs” and “cracks” Black communities in the state, thereby diluting their voting power. The lawsuit describes how Alabama’s new district maps violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In January 2022, a federal court struck down the maps. The unanimous decision halted the implementation of the maps and ordered the state Legislature to draft a new congressional map that complies with the Voting Rights Act. Despite the district court ruling ordering new maps to be drawn, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Alabama’s bid to block the state from having to redraw its maps and the maps remained in place.
On Oct. 4, 2022, Legal Defense Fund (LDF) Senior Counsel Deuel Ross presented oral argument before the Supreme Court in Merrill v. Milligan, LDF’s first case before the Court in six years.
His opening line, “There is nothing race-neutral about Alabama’s map,” became widely popular on Twitter and in media coverage about the case, because it demonstrated the deeply hypocritical nature of Alabama’s argument.
He continued, “The district court’s unanimous and thorough intensely local analysis did not err in finding that the Black Belt is a historic and extremely poor community of substantial significance. Yet, Alabama’s map cracks that community and allows white bloc voting to deny Black voters the opportunity to elect representation responsive to their needs. Rather than argue clear error, Alabama asks us to ignore statutory stare decisis [precedent] and to rewrite Section 2’s text” by arguing that plaintiffs must demonstrate that Alabama intended to engage in discrimination when it drew the maps for a Section 2 violation to apply.”
Ross added that “Section 2 is not an intent test or about putting on racial blinders. It is about equal opportunity, opportunity that Alabama’s map denies Black voters.” This distinction was an important one, as Alabama sought to frame race consciousness in redistricting as something that would result in inequality and discrimination – a nonsensical proposal, considering the purpose of Section 2. After Ross’ argument and questioning concluded, co-counsel Abha Khanna, partner at Elias Law Group, and Elizabeth Prelogar, the Solicitor General of the United States, delivered arguments supporting Ross’s reasoning.
For decades, Alabama has used discriminatory redistricting policies that dilute the voting power of Black Alabamians and prevent them from electing candidates of their choice. The maps drawn for the 2021 redistricting cycle are part of the “sordid record” of Alabama’s white majority using racial discrimination to retain power.
In five of the six redistricting cycles since 1960, the U.S. Department of Justice or federal courts have found that Alabama’s legislative districts — congressional, state, or both — violate the rights of voters under the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act.
Throughout the 2021 redistricting cycle, Black Alabamians have publicly called on the legislature to ensure maps are drawn fairly and do not dilute Black voting strength. Again, in this latest round of drawing political districts, Alabamians had no access to potential maps during the so-called “community input” process. Legislative leaders drew political maps in secret, and at the 11th hour, presented the maps challenged today that use race as a predominant factor in determining district lines — but not in a way tailored to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
New political maps are drawn as part of the once-in-a-decade redistricting process triggered by census data. Redistricting is the process of redrawing district maps that shape legislative, congressional, and political power. These maps determine where you can vote
Redistricting encompasses the process by which states and the jurisdictions within them redraw the district maps that shape legislative, congressional, and local power. Where district lines are drawn can determine where residents can vote, whom they can vote for, and even how responsive elected officials are to constituents’ requests and how resources are allocated.
“Cracking” refers to splitting communities of color into different districts to prevent them from exercising greater political power. “Packing” refers to placing people of color into the same district in greater numbers than necessary to elect candidates of choice to prevent them from exercising greater political power in surrounding districts.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder effectively dismantled Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and the pre-approval process that required states with histories of racial discrimination in redistricting to seek approval from the federal government before implementing plans. The absence of the federal preclearance process is a major detriment to voters of color.