A new Supreme Court session is underway, and among the first arguments this week involves one of the few remaining sections of the Voting Rights Act. Arising out of a lawsuit involving redistricting in Alabama, Merrill v. Milligan could have broad implications for addressing racial gerrymandering in the future.
While there have been several cases involving challenges to potentially unconstitutional maps making their way through the courts, Merill could determine the fate of voters and fair representative districts for years to come. Brittany Carter, a political participation fellow at the NAACP Legal and Education Defense Fund, spoke with NewsOne about the stakes in Merrill.
As a part of the legal team representing the Black voters in Merrill, Carter explained that the core of the argument against the map passed by the Alabama legislature is that it is an unconstitutional dilution of Black people’s votes. According to Carter, such dilution is a “threat” to American democracy.
In Alabama, Black voters make up a little less than 30 percent of the state population but, according to the plaintiffs, do not have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice. This holds particularly true for the segment of the population living in the Black Belt.
“Given that population of Black voters, we argued in our case, should have the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice in two of the seven congressional districts that Alabama has,” Carter said. “Alabama has consistently only given Black voters a chance to elect a representative of choice in one out of seven districts.”
Merrill case could have broad implications on voting rights
The decision in Merrill will be expected in 2023 and could come as the nation marks the tenth anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder. Another case out of Alabama, Shelby, involved sections four and five of the Voting Rights Act, forever changing longstanding protections. Merrill involves section two of the Voting Rights Act. It’s yet to be seen how the Supreme Court will resolve the issues raised in Merrill and handle one of the few remaining provisions of the landmark pro-democracy law.
“One thing that they’ve continued to say since that decision is that ‘well Black voters still have section two,” she said, “Black voters can still show that they’re being eliminated from the franchise that their votes are being diluted systematically under section two.”
Merrill could be a test of whether that remains true. The Court could narrowly decide the challenge to the Alabama maps or, like in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, make a broad change to existing law. A lawsuit in Louisiana involving similar issues of diluting Black voting power awaits the decision in Merrill. Earlier this summer, a judge reinstated Louisiana maps that voting rights advocates argued improperly discriminated against Black voters.
But Carter said that she and her colleagues were not going to assume what course of action the Court might take. They were committed to putting forth the strongest case possible and pointing to existing law and how it applies to actual voters and communities.
“The attack on voting rights is real,” Carter said. “It is not a new day, and a lot of these places where Black people have particular voting preferences that are different from the voting preferences of white people, their votes are intentionally targeted. And they are intentionally made to be to have less power and to be less of a factor in the electorate.”
Black voters need a voice in state legislatures to protect progressive policy wins at the local level
Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, echoed Carter’s sentiment. Douglas said his group has been doing voter registration since the 1970s and generally stopped there. But with the stakes in redistricting, the organization became more involved in that part of the electoral process, ensuring fair representation for all.
“Alabama has a penchant for packing as many Blacks as you can enter into a majority Black district and that looting of Black voters strength in surrounding districts to loot pack at the state level,” Douglas said. “The reason that hurts is that the Alabama legislature is bent on ignoring the issues that poor people face and bending over backward to satisfy the needs of large corporations. And so, our vote is diluted statewide.”
He also gave an example of the impact of state elected officials’ undoing opportunities at the local level. In 2015, Birmingham passed an ordinance raising the minimum wage to $8.50 in 2016 and $10.10 in 2017. The majority Black city was reportedly the first in the South to take this important step.
But according to Douglas, the predominantly white conservative legislature took action to curtail Birmingham’s progress. White state legislators, many of whom represented majority-white districts, swiftly passed House Bill 174, preempting Birmingham’s minimum wage law.
“The Alabama legislature has a disproportionate impact on local counties and municipalities,” Douglas said. “To do the most progressive local stuff, you got to have a voice in state legislation at least.”
Douglas said people should be concerned about what happens in other states like Alabama because representation in one state can impact the nation.
“African American influenced representation in Congress means a lot to everybody across the nation, in terms of whether we’re going to have more policies benefiting working families, and more effective policies making housing more accessible, definitely healthcare more accessible in rural areas and pockets of urban areas,” he said. “That takes voices to be amplified across the nation, in every state. Nullifying or diminishing the voice of African Americans diminishes hope for the nation.”
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