DemDaily: Redistricting Roundup One: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana

September 7, 2023

Major rulings involving legal redistricting battles were delivered in the last week, with profound ramifications for other gerrymandering and voting rights cases, as well as the 2024 elections.

The fate of congressional and legislative maps in at least 27 states are the subject of legal challenges, including key cases in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas and Utah, among others.

In the latest development in the Alabama redistricting case, federal judges on Tuesday once again rejected a plan submitted by Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature, which had been ordered to revise an earlier map found to be in violation of the US Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Amendments to the law have gradually eroded its protections, leaving Section 2 as its core foundation.

Alabama's seven congressional districts have had approximately the same boundaries for the last three decades, with just one majority-minority district. In drawing the new 2021 congressional district map following the decennial US Census, the Republican-controlled legislature took into account shifts in population numbers, but not in racial diversity -- which showed that African American voter representation had increased to 27% of the electorate.

Multiple groups filed lawsuits, arguing the new districts violated Section 2 of the VRA -- and the equal protections under the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution -- by packing Black voters into a single district in central Alabama known as the “Black Belt,” while diluting the state’s other Black residents' voting power by reapportioning them into other districts.

The plaintiffs sought the creation of a second majority-minority district and in January 2022, a three-judge federal court, two of whom were Trump appointees, agreed that the legislature's map violated the VRA.

In Allen v. Milligan, Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen (R) appealed to the US Supreme Court, which, in a surprise 5-4 decision on June 8, 2023, ruled in favor of Black Alabamians. SCOTUS sent the state back to the drawing board -- ordering it to follow the lower district court ruling that required “two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something very close.”

In defiance of the order, the Alabama legislature and Republican Governor Kay Ivey in July passed a new map that lowers the Black voting-age population threshold in the existing majority-Black district seat held by Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D) from about 55% to just over 50%, and increases a second district’s Black population percentage to about 40%.

The map, they argued, offered Black voters the "opportunity" to elect representatives of their choice without carving a second district.

In blocking the newly drawn congressional map, the three-judge panel wrote, "We are deeply troubled that the State enacted a map that the State readily admits does not provide the remedy we said federal law requires.” The judges directed a court-appointed special master to submit three proposed new maps by September 25.

Alabama officials filed notice that they are appealing the ruling to the US Supreme Court and will be asking for an immediate stay on the lower court's ruling while the appeal proceeds.

Redistricting is the process of redrawing the new electoral boundaries of all 435 US House seats and 7,383 state legislative seats across 50 states. New maps are based on the decennial count of the US population by the US Census Bureau and determine the geographic and political makeup of Congress for the next ten years. Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing or manipulating those district lines to the unfair political advantage of a particular party or group.

In Florida last Tuesday, Circuit Judge Lee Marsh rejected a redistricting plan enacted by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, and used in the 2022 elections, ruling it was in violation of the state constitution as it diminishes the ability of Black voters in north Florida to pick a representative of their choice.

In 2022 DeSantis vetoed a redistricting map drawn by his own Republican-led legislature and instead pushed lawmakers to approve a map that dismantled a North Florida seat held by three-term Congressman Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, by dividing a large number of Black voters into conservative districts represented by white Republicans.

Lawson subsequently lost reelection and DeSantis' discriminatory map was credited with a four-seat pickup in the US House.

Voting rights groups, including Black Voters Matter, Equal Ground, Florida Rising and the League of Women Voters of Florida, sued over the DeSantis map in April 2022, claiming it violated state and federal voting rights protections for Black voters.

In his ruling, Marsh sent the plan back to the Florida Legislature with instructions that lawmakers should draw a new congressional map that complies with the Florida Constitution.

Two weeks after the US Supreme Court's June 8, 2023 decision upholding Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in the Alabama case, SCOTUS lifted a stay on a similar redistricting suit in Louisiana, returning it back to a lower court.

In Robinson v. Ardoin, Louisiana's Republican-controlled legislature passed a congressional redistricting map in 2022 which drew one majority-minority district out of six congressional districts -- despite Louisiana having a black population of 30%.

A coalition that included the NAACP, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, and nine Louisiana voters challenged the map in court, and in June 2022, US District Court Judge Shelly Dick struck down the map for being racially gerrymandered -- ordering lawmakers to redraw the map to create a second district that held a majority of Black voters.

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin (R) filed an emergency application to the US Supreme for a stay pending appeal and arguments before the court. SCOTUS agreed to hear the case, pending outcome of the Alabama case -- effectively freezing it for a year, and allowing the enacted plan to be used in the 2022 election.

In the wake of its decision in the Milligan, the Supreme Court declined to hear Robinson v. Ardoin, referring the case to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to hear Louisiana’s appeal. The instruction directed a decision "in advance of the 2024 elections," raising the likelihood that the state will soon be required to create a second majority-minority congressional district.

Tomorrow: DemDaily: Redistricting Round Up Two! The Other States

DemList will keep you informed.

DemDaily: What is the Voting Rights Act? 8/823
DemDaily: Alabama v. The Voting Rights Act 7/25/23
DemDaily: Supreme Court Strikes Down GOP Election Doctrine 6/27/23
DemDaily: Supreme Court Upholds Voting Rights Act Foundation 6/13/23

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Sources: SCOTUSBlog, AP, CNN, Politico, Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post, Vanderbilt, Brennan Center

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