Kenya Goodson, a 46-year-old Black woman from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has voted in every election since she was 19.
But last week’s Supreme Court decision to allow Alabama’s new congressional map — which voting rights advocates say dilutes the power of Black voters — to remain in place has left Goodson, who volunteers to register voters, discouraged about casting a ballot herself.
“I was really very hurt, you know, and angry really by the decision by our Supreme Court,” said Goodson, an adjunct professor at the University of Montevallo. “There are people that are making decisions, not because it’s the law, but they’re making decisions to uphold White supremacy by diluting my vote.”
“It is discouraging because I don’t know what I could do as a citizen to change anything,” she added.
Legal challenges are expected to continue in this case, and similar lawsuits have been filed in Texas and Georgia, which will bring the issue of voting rights, racial gerrymandering and discriminatory election practices to the forefront ahead of the midterm elections.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments over the Alabama map, which could determine the fate of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Goodson said she is still going to vote, and will encourage others to do so, because “our ancestors … helped us to get this right,” but community organizers worry there could be “devastating implications” that marginalize Black voters and could, in turn, impact turnout and faith in the democratic process.
LaTosha Brown, an Alabama native and founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said this ruling is “really rubber-stamping voter disenfranchisement.”
“But it’s not just about Alabama,” Brown added. “It has implications for voter protections around the country.”
What is redistricting?
Felicia Scalzetti, a redistricting organizer for the Alabama Election Protection Network and the Ordinary People Society, told CNN, “The problem with redistricting is that … it changes who you can vote for.”
“You can encourage people to turn out all you want,” Scalzetti said. “But if the slate of people on the ballot do not actually represent your community because your community is cut six ways to Sunday, there’s no amount of turning out that’s going to fix that.”
Redistricting is the process of reallocating congressional seats every 10 years based on population changes reflected in the US Census and then redrawing the boundaries of the congressional districts so each has an equal population.
In 35 states, the legislature has control over the redistricting process, which raises concerns about the incumbent party manipulating the process in its favor, also known as partisan gerrymandering. In this election cycle, 20 of the 35 states are controlled by Republicans, compared with 11 favoring Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. Four states have divided governments.
Similarly, redrawing in terms of race is known as racial gerrymandering. Since voters of color tend to favor Democrats, redistricting driven by party interests or fueled by racial motivation — whether to curb voters of color or amplify their influence — go hand in hand.
Alabama’s Republican-drawn map gives Black voters the majority in only one of seven districts despite them making up 27% of the population. Thus, the Alabama lawsuit argued that it had been drawn based on race, and used the “cracking” and “packing” tactics to specifically dilute the power of Black voters.
The map lumped areas with high concentrations of Black people together in one district where they could be the majority — known as packing — and split up other Black voters in the state so they remain a minority in all other districts — known as cracking. It will remain in place for the state’s primaries in May.
“The thinking that we could just disenfranchise people at the state level is still here and it still operates a large part of the state’s attitude toward our voting structure,” Dev Wakeley, policy analyst at Alabama Arise, a nonprofit public policy advocacy organization, told CNN.
Wakeley and others say the map is a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits any practice that denies or curtails the right to vote based on race. The law included a provision that mandated states with a history of discriminatory practices, which included Alabama, to obtain federal approval before changing electoral practices, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
In fact, a lower court unanimously ruled that the new congressional map violates the Voting Rights Act, and the three-judge panel — which included two judges appointed by former President Donald Trump — ordered the state to draw another district where Blacks made up a majority of voters or close to it.
“No one had any faith that the state of Alabama was going to have voters’ best interests at heart,” Wakeley said. “We expected a little more of an attempt at a fig leaf by the Supreme Court.”
But with a conservative majority and in a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court allowed the new map to stay in place while the case plays out, and experts say the highest court’s decision “sends a very strong signal.”
David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who focuses on redistricting, told CNN, “It’ll be harder for states to follow what we thought was settled law when it comes to creating minority-majority districts or even influence districts.”
“It’s going to be more of an uphill climb now for anyone to win a voting rights challenge,” he added.
Similar battles nationwide
“The sort of anti-democratic ideas that have infested a lot of Alabama decision makers are much more widespread,” Wakeley said.
“While we might be the sort of sandbox where these terrible policies come into play,” he added, “we’re far from alone.”
Other states have also been accused of intentionally suppressing the vote of communities of color in their redistricting plans.
Mark Gaber, who litigates redistricting cases for the Campaign Legal Center, told CNN, “It just seems, you know, that wherever the folks in power want to retain their power, they’ll, you know, have no sort of shame about violating voting rights of minorities.” The Campaign Legal Center is a non-profit legal advocacy organization that has filed lawsuits against multiple states for racial and partisan gerrymandering.
Texas faces multiple lawsuits, including one filed by the Biden administration in December, for its congressional map, which the Justice Department says does not reflect the state’s growth in minority population.
The state was awarded two additional congressional seats due to minority communities, who made up 95% of the state’s overall population growth, but the Justice Department said Texas had drawn the map in a way that the two new seats would be decided by majority-White voting populations.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against Georgia last month on behalf of multiple advocacy groups, saying the state’s new congressional map is “its latest assault on the rights of Black voters and other voters of color to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and elect candidates of their choice.”
The lawsuit alleges that Georgia, similarly to Alabama, packed voters of color into one district and spread out remaining voters of color to ensure they are the voting minority in two other districts.
“We’re in a very sort of unstable time in this landscape of voting rights law, and also just generally about elections in the country,” Gaber said. “And I think the last decade of experience in America proves that now more than ever we need protections for Black and Latino voters.”