Black voters in Alabama head for midterms on disputed map

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LaTasha Hyatt has worked for seven years to educate black voters in Alabama. The program director of the Carver Museum in Dothan, Alabama, Hyatt organizes voter engagement efforts, works on voter education, and canvasses each election to get the vote. She says black voters have often asked her the same question: What’s the point?

“When you canvass, you come into contact with a lot of disgruntled African Americans,” Hyatt says. “Anyway, they don’t feel like they have power. You have to overcome this dull energy to encourage people to vote.

This year, Hyatt says the energy could be even harder to fight, as Alabama’s congressional map has been challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court over whether it structurally dilutes people’s voting power. Blacks in the state.

In November 2021, Republican Alabama Governor Kay Ivey approved new federal congressional districts based on the 2020 census. The map of the seven districts – which was drawn by 15 white Republicans and six black Democrats in the state legislature – contains only one majority black district, despite the fact that black voters in Alabama make up about 26% of the state. Several Alabama black voters and advocacy groups have challenged the map, arguing that it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits state governments from limiting voting based on the race, including through “vote dilution” by intentionally carving communities of color between districts or squeezing them all into one. Challengers argue the 2021 map illegally ‘wraps’ most of the state’s black voters into the 7th congressional district and ‘breaks’ remaining black voters in Mobile, Montgomery, and the Rural Black Belt in Congressional Districts 1, 2, and 3.

Alabama’s proposed redistricting plan for 2021 (left) next to a demographic map (right) in an exhibit submitted by plaintiffs alleging the map violates voting rights law.

Milligan v. Merrill

In January, a panel of three federal judges, two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump, agreed. They not only ruled that “black Alabamians are sufficiently numerous to constitute a majority of voting age in a second congressional district,” but also concluded that “black voters have fewer opportunities than other Alabamians to elect the candidates of their choice to Congress. The panel ordered the state legislature to toss the map and go back to the drawing board to create either another black-majority district or “an additional district in which black voters otherwise have the opportunity to elect.” a representative of their choice.


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But Alabama appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 in February to reinstate the map until it issues its final decision on the case. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on Tuesday, and the outcome could bolster or void what remains of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Alabama argues that the district court’s order to draw a Majority Black Second District amounts to “racial segregation”. voters of Alabama and thus violates the Constitution. The plaintiffs argue that race has long been one of many factors that mapmakers could use to delineate communities of interest when redrawing. On Tuesday, the court’s conservative justices appeared unresponsive to Alabama’s arguments for a racially neutral redistricting, though they also seemed inclined to uphold the original map. (The Alabama Attorney General’s office did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.)

Read more: The Supreme Court could further gut the Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court may not deliver its answer on the legality of the Alabama map until next year. But in the meantime, Alabama voters will head to the polls in November in districts that a federal court has already ruled could illegally diminish black voting power, and whose ultimate fate remains uncertain.

Several black Alabamians told TIME that the situation has motivated them to step up their efforts to “get out of the vote” to channel their frustration and anger. But Hyatt fears it may be more difficult to convince others to participate, given that three federal judges have confirmed what many already suspected: Black Alabamians could have less power in the election than white Alabamians. “You can’t tell black voters the system isn’t against you, when we’re making this progress and it clearly seems against us,” Hyatt says. “We still have to pay the same amount of taxes. We still have to do the same things as everyone else. But we don’t have that many votes.

“We must stay on this battlefield”

Acquanetta Gaston Poole, the 64-year-old Alabama state organizing manager of the nonprofit Black Voters Matter, says she’s given the story a lot of thought as she she follows her state’s redistricting battle.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was in many ways born out of the struggle of black civil rights activists in Alabama, who marched from Selma to Montgomery to protest Jim Crow’s racist election laws and drew nationwide attention. “The only way to make a difference is to get people to vote,” Poole said. “And they make it so difficult today. But we must stay on this battlefield.

John Merrill, Republican Secretary of State for Alabama and the main defendant in the lawsuit, told TIME that it’s important to remember that Alabamians can choose to live “where they can choose to live.” “The fact that people are mobile and can live wherever they want makes it difficult to place people in particular districts if you’re just trying to break them down by race,” he says.

Chastady Perry, 37, lives in Congressional District 2, one of the districts the lawsuit says is “splitting” communities of black voters and diluting their voting power. Perry, like Poole, says she has recently reflected on the “many injustices our parents and grandparents faced”. But Perry also says her frustration motivated her more than ever to try to get the vote.

Linda Tullis Sellars, 66, in Birmingham, feels the same way. “It almost makes me want to run for office, if you want to know the truth,” Sellars says. “Because I want to see a change in the democratic process in my state.” Scottie McClaney, 58, also in Birmingham, says when she tries to fight a sense of worthlessness when it comes to voting, she reflects on the state’s past. “It’s just a tradition, a story, for our parents to take us to the polls,” she said. “I was taught to vote. People died for us to vote.

What happens after

Regardless of whether the Supreme Court accepts that Alabama’s districts are engaging in illegal vote dilution, the results of the 2022 election will stand.

This is standard practice when it comes to challenging redistricting maps, says Jeffrey M. Wice, a New York Law School professor who specializes in redistricting. The Supreme Court could in theory order a new election with a new map in 2023, but that’s extremely unlikely. More likely, if the Supreme Court rules that the districts are illegal, the legislature would be sent to create a new map, which in turn could be challenged again in court. This cycle has been repeating itself in states like North Carolina and Texas for decades, and litigation can take many years to reach a final resolution. The dispute over the map of North Carolina drawn in 1992 was last settled by the Supreme Court in 2001, meaning nine years of elections took place while the map was in dispute.

Experts say the cycle can perpetuate injustice. Even if the Supreme Court agrees with the district court and orders Alabama to draw a majority black second district, black voters could still be at a disadvantage because whoever is elected this year on the current map will have the advantage of being the starter, Wice argues. But based on Tuesday’s oral arguments, legal experts say it seems more likely that the High Court will uphold the map, albeit potentially on narrower grounds than those sought by Alabama.

The Carver Museum’s Hyatt says she’s spooked by the possibility that the Supreme Court could leave Alabama’s new map in place. But “that’s why we have to do the work,” she says. “That’s why we need to make our voices heard. Because black voters don’t feel heard.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at [email protected]

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