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Enrijeta Shino

October 3rd, 2023

Alabama’s redistricting controversy shows how control of Congress can turn on voting boundaries.

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Enrijeta Shino

October 3rd, 2023

Alabama’s redistricting controversy shows how control of Congress can turn on voting boundaries.

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

On September 26th the United States Supreme Court refused the state of Alabama’s recently redrawn congressional map, which state lawmakers had redrawn following an earlier Supreme Court ruling. That decision found that the state’s district map violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by drawing only one district where Black voters constituted the majority. Enrijeta Shino gives an overview of the Alabama redistricting controversy, writing that the latest Supreme Court ruling is a major win for civil rights groups and has important implications for the 2024 elections.

Since the US Supreme Court’s Baker v. Carr decision in 1962, every decade, states with multiple congressional districts are legally required to adjust their boundaries to satisfy the one person, one vote principle. Redistricting, while necessary to adapt districts to population changes, is probably one of the most disruptive electoral processes, which has implications in altering the representative-constituent relationship. It is also one of the most politically charged processes as it can determine winners and losers, causing significant anxiety for voters, incumbents, and the two major parties when it comes to control of the US Congress.

The redistricting controversy in Alabama

On June 8, 2023, the US Supreme Court’s unexpected ruling in Allen v. Milligan struck down Alabama’s congressional map for violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that Alabama’s congressional map denied Black voters the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice by drawing only one out of seven congressional districts where Black voters constitute the majority. Black voters in Alabama are 27 percent of the voting-age population. In a major win for civil rights groups and allies aligned with the Democratic Party, the Supreme Court’s decision affirmed Section 2 of the VRA, which allows race to be considered in the redistricting process to prevent minority vote dilution—that is, depriving minority groups a chance for representation.

The current congressional map of Alabama discriminates against Black voters by including just one district in which an African American has a chance of being elected, the majority Black Seventh District (over 62 percent Black). The remaining six congressional districts have Black populations ranging from under 8 percent to a high of just under 33 percent—and in Alabama, because of extreme racially polarized voting along partisan lines, there is no chance for an African American or a Democrat of any race/ethnicity, to prevail in these districts. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s previous ruling that Alabama must draw an additional district where Black voters can elect their preferred candidate. Under federal law, the Alabama legislature had the first opportunity to draw a map in compliance with the Supreme Court’s directive.

On July 21, 2023, Alabama lawmakers drew a new congressional map, but a federal court claimed it violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it once again had only one majority Black district. In response, the federal court directed a special master to develop a remedial map. Alabama then appealed to the Supreme Court to postpone the design of the new map, but on September 26, 2023, the Supreme Court refused Alabama’s request, affirming the lower court’s decision that the new map contain two majority Black districts.

Alabama is one of the most racially polarized states with regard to voter preferences. White voters overwhelmingly vote for Republicans and Black voters overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. In this context, enforcement of the VRA is essential to safeguard against minority vote dilution. Hence, because redrawing congressional maps is the responsibility of Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature, federal intervention is the only remedy for expanding Black representation in the state’s US House delegation.

Voting this way” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by domesticat

Implications for fair representation

When congressional reapportionment occurs every ten years (in line with the US Census), literally millions of constituents across the United States experience a change in the House incumbent seeking reelection in their district because of altered congressional boundaries. My research identifies several ways in which severing this representative-constituent relationship negatively affects political behavior. A recent article looking at the 2012 US House elections, analyzes the behavioral differences of people with the same incumbent seeking reelection versus redrawn constituents, those residing in a district with a different incumbent seeking reelection because of redistricting.

Redrawn constituents were less likely to know the party, race, and gender of the House incumbent seeking reelection in their district. Additionally, this informational deficit contributed to redrawn residents being less likely to cast a vote for the incumbent running in their district and being significantly less likely to even register a choice in the House contest. Further, redrawn constituents were less likely to register opinions on the quality of representation provided by their current congressperson and the candidate winning the 2012 House election. Finally, primarily due to having a different House incumbent seeking reelection in their district, redrawn constituents were substantially less likely to agree that the redistricting process in their state was conducted fairly. 

What comes next?

The 2023 Supreme Court ruling in Allen v. Milligan is a major win for civil rights groups and has weighty implications for the upcoming 2024 elections. Currently, Republicans’ majority in the US House of Representatives is so narrow that a net change of five seats would result in Democratic control. By dint of the Allen ruling, Alabama, like its four Deep South state neighbors (Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina), are under pressure to redraw congressional maps expanding minority representation by adding majority Black districts. In a remarkable display of partisan polarization along racial lines, in the Deep South’s 38-member congressional delegation every Democrat is an African American (9 total) and only one African American congressperson represents a district that is not majority Black (Lucy McBath-GA 7).

Thus, racially polarized voting in these states necessarily means that adding majority Black districts is a zero-sum game in which additional Democratic representation comes at the direct expense of Republican representation. Hence, adding majority Black districts in these states and perhaps other southern states like Florida (a court recently struck down its map for engaging in minority vote dilution), is probably enough to flip the US House to Democrats in 2024. But time is of the essence, as delaying tactics can prolong the existence of unlawful congressional maps that may thwart a change in the balance of power in the House of Representatives. 


 

About the author

Enrijeta Shino

Enrijeta Shino is an Assistant Professor of American Politics at the University of Alabama. Dr. Shino’s primary research focuses on the impact of election reform laws on turnout, representation, and voter behavior.

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