The United States’ current political and legislative landscape may best be described as a moral panic. Restrictions on abortion access and the perpetuation of anti-LGBTQ legislation, book bans, and propagandistic education have risen sharply in the last near-decade, these flames fanned by growing authoritarian tendencies among some politicians. Elected officials all across the country have proposed and passed widely unpopular legislation, many times despite loud dissent from constituents. How do unrepresentative lawmakers keep getting elected? Part of the answer lies in redistricting.
Before Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court nullified the requirement for certain states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to submit new congressional and state legislative maps — which determine the districts voters fall into — for federal approval, the redistricting process largely focused on expanding access for Black voters and other historically disenfranchised communities. Because of that requirement called “preclearance,” which was established by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, states not only had to defend the fairness of their maps, but take every opportunity to improve representation for voters of color.
Many lawmakers hostile to voting rights have taken advantage of the absence of preclearance. Indeed, some state legislatures have blocked opportunities for fair representation so some of their members can increase their chances of reelection and remain in power. Now, amid the current political and legislative landscape where we are witnessing the passage of oppressive and frequently undesired legislation, maps that accurately represent our diverse, multicultural communities are more important than ever.
While organizations like the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) continue to fight discriminatory maps in court, in the meantime elections — and therefore legislation — often get tainted by these maps, and constituents are held hostage by legislators who might not have been elected if the electoral process wasn’t rigged from the start. Here, we’ll explore how three states with discriminatory maps have shirked their responsibilities to their constituents, paving the way for the passage of oppressive legislation.
In 2021, Alabama passed racially discriminatory congressional and state legislative maps that pack and crack Black communities to decrease their political power in violation of the VRA. In response, LDF sued on behalf of Black voters, ultimately securing a win at the U.S. Supreme Court in the congressional map challenge in the case Allen v. Milligan. However, the fight for a fair state legislative map continues — and Alabamians are paying the price. A representative state legislative map would ensure Black voters’ voices are no longer diluted and make way for candidates who are fairly elected and share the same concerns and values as their constituents. Rather than enact such a map, the legislature has ignored its vulnerable constituents while passing hostile legislation.
Alabama is one of the worst-ranked states in the country for infrastructure, education, and health care outcomes, with the consequences of these shortcomings falling most on Black and low-income communities. More than half of Alabama’s 52 rural hospitals are in danger of closing and the state has virtually no public transportation, among other crises. Instead of addressing these urgent issues, Alabama recently enacted bans on abortion and on gender-affirming care for transgender people under age 19. The state has also attempted to pass bans on teaching “divisive concepts” in the classroom — which would lead to inaccurate and propagandistic portrayals of U.S. race relations — and on drag shows. Moreover, its legislature is also considering the “What is a Woman” bill, which would legally define gender in a way that rejects the existence of transgender, non-binary, and intersex people, placing them under increased scrutiny and at increased risk of violence in public restrooms, schools, workspaces, health care settings, and more.
While LDF continues to advocate for fair representation at the state level, Alabamians are suffering, oppressed both by regressive legislation and a lack of action toward meeting the needs of the state’s most vulnerable residents. “Because health care, public education, public transportation, and public housing for those in need all matter, [those who are] anti-democracy cannot have the final word, whether at the state legislative or congressional district level,” Scott Douglas, Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Ministries and plaintiff in Milligan tells LDF in an interview for this article. “Because democracy matters, maps that counter … gerrymandered redistricting that maximizes racist, misogynistic, anti-worker, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQ initiatives cannot have the final word.”
Louisiana is one of the most egregious offenders of discriminatory redistricting. Black people make up nearly a third of the state’s voting-age population, yet only have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in one of the state’s six congressional districts (or 16.7% of the districts). At the state level, lawmakers also failed to add up to nine additional majority-Black districts in the state’s House and Senate maps as required by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act — a different section of the VRA that prohibits racially discriminatory voting practices that was not affected by Shelby and remains fully in effect. Black Louisianians have never been accurately represented at the state or federal level, with previous maps on either level severely diluting Black political power.
Despite ongoing litigation, in 2022 elections were held using the woefully unlawful congressional map. And the current election season, which includes a gubernatorial race, continues to use the racially gerrymandered state legislative map, forever tainting the state’s political landscape. “In Louisiana, the same legislature that passed discriminatory maps has taken extraordinary actions to override gubernatorial vetoes of anti-civil rights legislation in the time since,” says LDF voting rights attorney Victoria Wenger when speaking with LDF for this article, illustrating the many interconnections between discriminatory maps and problematic legislation. “Members elected from districts with a majority-Black voter base have often been left with few allies to help defend against regressive policies in the hyper-polarized legislature. Looking toward the upcoming elections for the districts drawn in the dilutive state legislative maps, dozens and dozens of state lawmakers have already retained their seats because they drew no opponent [likely due to the way the maps have been drawn]. Maps that deny Black voters equal opportunities to elect their candidates of choice perpetuate this lack of competition. Fair and equitable maps would be a vital fix to break these anti-democratic cycles.”
Louisiana has the fourth-highest maternal mortality rate in the country, as a third of its parishes, the state’s equivalent of counties, lack a single OB-GYN. Its contribution to mass incarceration is also jarring, as it imprisons a higher percentage of its people than any democracy in the world. Meanwhile, Louisiana has spent taxpayer money passing bans on abortion, overriding the governor’s veto in the process, and gender-affirming care for minors, which has only worsened its constituents’ quality of life
In November, a trial will begin in the lawsuit challenging the state legislative maps, in which LDF will argue that up to nine additional majority-Black districts should be added to comply with federal law, three for the Louisiana State Senate and six for the Louisiana House of Representatives.
South Carolina also lacks proper representation for its diverse communities, rushing to pass discriminatory congressional and state legislative maps after a lengthy delay in its redistricting process. While the legislature settled in the lawsuit challenging its state legislative map, it subsequently continues to use time, taxpayer money, and government resources defending its racially gerrymandered congressional map that breaks up Congressional District 1, which is historically-anchored by Charleston County. In fact, the South Carolina General Assembly moved 30,000 Black voters out of the district, effectively removing their influence and ability to elect a candidate of choice. Despite a ten-day trial in October 2022 resulting in a victory for Black voters, with the court agreeing that state legislators had “bleached Charleston” to unlawfully hold on to power, the legislature appealed the district court’s ruling.
On Oct. 11, 2023 LDF argued before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Black South Carolina voters advocating for the drawing of a new congressional map that instead keeps Black communities together and ensures their voices are heard — particularly about issues by which they are significantly impacted. “The dilution of the political voice of Black South Carolina voters in the halls of the U.S. Congress means that those Black voters do not have an advocate to fight for federal policies such as Medicaid expansion, insulin caps, broadband internet access, and infrastructure in [Black communities] across Congressional District 1,” says LDF Assistant Counsel Antonio Ingraham in an interview for this piece. “The enacted map means that the political leadership in Congressional District 1 does not have to be responsive to their Black constituents and, therefore, many of the needs of the Black community in that portion of South Carolina remain unmet. If [a fair map is enacted], South Carolina would improve because all voters would have fair access to fight for their issues in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.”
While the LDF prevented a worse state legislative map from being enacted through the settlement, Black voters are still not as well represented as they should be at the state level. And South Carolina General Assembly taxpayer funds are continuing to go toward defending a discriminatory congressional map and passing oppressive legislation. This includes bans on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, two weeks before pregnant people typically discover they are expecting. The legislature is also considering legislation to ban drag performances and classroom censorship laws that will restrict teachers from accurately portraying race and gender inequalities.
The South Carolina General Assembly’s discriminatory redistricting map and its attack on Black voters is part and parcel of a larger assault on the civil rights of women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other historically marginalized communities. While a new congressional map won’t prevent hostile state laws, it could significantly improve issues that are regulated at the federal level, like affordable housing, infrastructure, and the displacement of communities of color, empowering the communities most affected by these issues. Regardless, the legislature’s priorities — stripping both civil and inalienable rights at every turn — remain unchanged, despite calls to both represent and protect its most vulnerable constituents.
LDF recognizes that power is connected both federally and statewide. Many state lawmakers, who should be expanding access and representation for historically disenfranchised communities, instead have gone to great lengths to inhibit their representation and therefore, their ability to thrive, by passing discriminatory maps. These maps, which the federal government would have likely rejected if preclearance were still in effect, have poisoned the elections that have occurred since, often allowing extreme candidates to get elected, hold office, and pass oppressive legislation. Since the civil rights movement, we have not seen state officials so brazenly — and unlawfully — limit the rights of historically disenfranchised and marginalized communities to hold onto power.
But we aren’t letting them off the hook — and LDF has been on the frontlines to defend all voters’ right to fair representation. It’s clear that discriminatory maps are a catalyst for oppressive legislation that targets our most vulnerable and historically abused communities. However, when diverse communities are fairly represented, quality of life improves for all. LDF looks forward to a future where every voice is heard and elected officials accurately represent those voices. Until then, the fight continues.
LDF Original Content
On Oct. 11, 2023, LDF Senior Counsel Leah Aden presented oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the consequential racial gerrymandering case Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP.
LDF Original Content
In October 2022, LDF returned to the Supreme Court to successfully defend Alabama voters challenging the state’s discriminatory congressional map.
LDF Original Content
Understanding the role of race in the redistricting process as a means of ensuring equitable representation and political power is critical.
LDF has closely monitored the redistricting process in key states to ensure that maps are drawn fairly and do not disenfranchise Black voters. This guide provides an overview of LDF’s work during the 2021 redistricting cycle.
We’ve compiled answers to frequently asked questions about Allen v. Milligan and its impact on voting rights and redistricting.
LDF, MALDEF, and AAJC published a guide to the redistricting process, outlining how communities can get involved and advocate for fair maps.