The Supreme Court's unexpected affirmation of part of the Voting Rights Act was not just a win for Black voters in Alabama — it could also send new Democrats to Congress in as many as four states, advocates said, as the precedent is applied in similar cases around the country.
The court, divided 5-4, struck down Alabama's congressional map Thursday, agreeing with a lower court that the state had diluted the power of Black voters by drawing just one majority-Black district when there were enough voters for two seats.
Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the court’s three liberals.
The state's Republican-controlled Legislature will be tasked with redrawing Alabama's seven congressional districts so they include two majority-Black — and heavily Democratic — seats in the state's so-called Black Belt. The region is named for its dark, fertile soil that was farmed by the enslaved ancestors of many Black Alabama voters.
The ruling buttressed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, landmark legislation that secured voting representation for people of color in America, and its impact will extend far outside the region.
Thursday’s ruling surprised many court observers and voting rights advocates, in large part because the Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority that has often ruled against voting rights groups. In February 2022, the court had ordered Alabama in a preliminary decision to use the challenged map in the midterm election, which suggested it was likely to ultimately rule for the state.
A similar case over Louisiana's congressional map is expected to force state legislators to draw a second Black district there, while courts in Georgia and Texas are weighing similar challenges to Section 2 of the law for federal redistricting maps.
The changes could well affect which party controls Congress: Republicans have only a five-seat majority heading into 2024, and the continued fights over congressional maps could make the difference in another close election.
“I think you’re going to see changes to a lot of those maps — if not all of those maps — in short order," said John Bisognano, the president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and the National Redistricting Foundation, which supported some of the plaintiffs who challenged Alabama's maps.
Abha Khanna, a lawyer at the Elias Law Group, which represents plaintiffs in the Alabama dispute and other voting rights cases, said "there's reason to be confident going into these cases" as a result of the Supreme Court ruling.
"The state defendants' attempts to see if they can manipulate the law and change the law because the facts don’t add up on their side have been fully thwarted," she said.
Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said he expects at least three new Black districts to emerge in the South because of Thursday’s ruling.
State and local offices may change hands, too. The congressional challenges are among an estimated three dozen pending across the country.
“That’s not to say that all of those will now succeed — not everything will be as straightforward as Alabama, and it remains to be seen how the court will address more complicated fact patterns,” Li said.
The American Civil Liberties Union alone has seven cases in addition to the Alabama dispute that involve either local, state or congressional district maps that could be affected by Thursday’s ruling.
Louisiana is most directly affected by the Alabama ruling, and it is expected to follow Alabama in redrawing maps.
In June 2022, the Supreme Court, following an approach similar to its handling of the Alabama case, allowed Republicans to use a map of Louisiana's six districts that a judge had struck down because it had just one instead of two districts where Black voters would have had good chances to elect the representatives of their choosing. Using the new map, Republicans won five of the six districts in November’s midterm elections.
That case has been on hold at the Supreme Court pending the outcome of the Alabama case. As a result of Thursday’s ruling, the court is now likely to allow the Louisiana ruling to go into effect, giving Democrats a chance to win a second seat.
The Georgia case, in which plaintiffs say there should be an additional majority-Black district in metropolitan Atlanta, is tentatively scheduled for trial in September, a timeline the court said was set to give it time to consider the Supreme Court's ruling in Allen v. Milligan.
The Texas challenge is earlier in the legal process than those from the other states. Bisognano said it could create as many as five "coalition districts," in which multiple minority groups come together to elect representatives of their choosing.
In a statement after the ruling Thursday, Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Committee, said the decision will help "deliver a House of Representatives that better reflects the diversity of our nation," but she did not comment specifically on any potential number of seats.
Jack Pandol, the communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democrats were trying to "rig the game" and "sue till it's blue," but he predicted "Republicans will grow our majority in spite of Democrats’ legal end-runs."
Even though the decision appears to favor Democrats, it is still difficult to say whether it will lead to the creation of enough new Democratic-leaning majority districts to have a big impact on future elections, said Sophia Lin Lakin, a voting rights lawyer at the ACLU.
“There will be a lot of litigation around every single sentence in this decision,” she said.