What’s next in the raft of redistricting cases

There are maps under scrutiny by the courts across the country, including in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee.
A map of a GOP proposal to redraw Alabama’s congressional districts is displayed at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

A federal judicial panel decision Tuesday in Alabama to throw out the state legislature’s court-ordered redraw of its congressional map is one of several legal actions in Republican-led states in the South that could affect the balance of the U.S. House.

The theme uniting all five cases is the ability of Black communities to be represented in U.S. House district maps and, in some cases, state House and Senate maps, analysts said Tuesday.

In each case, representation of Black communities was impacted by aggressive districting procedures,” said Sam Wang, director of the Electoral Innovation Lab. 

Wang said the particular legal principle at play varies depending on the case. Voting rights advocates in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana cite violations of Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. That is the part of the law that governs after-the-fact challenges to discriminatory laws.

A Florida case was brought under state laws forbidding retrogression — going backward in racial representation, Wang said. Tennessee voting advocates are arguing that certain voting districts violate the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  

University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June in the Alabama case as an important precedent. It saw the court side with voting-rights groups suing the state to overturn Republican-drawn district maps over concern that they violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 

“That opened the door,” Bullock said. 

Section 2 prohibits any voting law, practice or map that results in the “denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color,” the VRA states.

Bullock expects most voting advocates to win their challenges, which could result in Democrats winning more U.S. House seats, where the GOP currently holds a 222 to 212 majority.

Below are brief summaries of the Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee cases:

Alabama map thrown out again

An Alabama federal court Tuesday rejected a second effort by Alabama Republicans to redraw the state’s congressional districts. The map put forth by state lawmakers again included only one district out of the seven that contained a majority of Black voters. 

The court ruled in January 2022 that the initial state plan had the effect of diluting the votes of Black Alabamians and violated the federal Section 2 of the VRA by not including another Black-majority district or “an additional district in which Black voters otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice,” the ruling said.

Tuesday’s ruling comes after Alabama appealed the initial ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2022. The court upheld the Alabama court’s ruling in June 2023. Alabama’s second attempt was approved by the legislature and signed by the governor in July.

“The law requires the creation of an additional district that affords Black Alabamians, like everyone else, a fair and reasonable opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” the latest ruling said. “The 2023 Plan plainly fails to do so.”

The Alabama court ordered a special master to begin drawing the districts as soon as possible. That map will be used in 2024, unless Alabama wins an appeal it intends to file Thursday.

Georgia trial begins

Another minority-vote dilution case is under way in federal court in Georgia. Tuesday was the first day of what is expected to be a two-week trial, which affects both the districts governing the U.S. House and the state House and Senate. 

The case was filed in December 2021, shortly after the state enacted its map. The plaintiffs argued that the maps violated Section 2 of the VRA. 

The case had been put on hold while the Alabama case was decided. 

In opening arguments, plaintiffs pointed to the surge in the state’s Black population — roughly 500,000 in the last decade — and the need for more minority-majority districts in state House and Senate maps as well as another minority U.S. House district. 

The state argued that Georgia, which elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate in recent elections, was sufficiently different from Alabama to not apply the Alabama ruling. 

Florida map thrown out

A state judge ruled Saturday that Florida’s redistricting map violated the state constitution and must be redrawn. The state could appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. 

The proposed map, championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), broke up a traditionally majority-Black district in the northern part of the state previously held by former Rep. Al Lawson (D). 

DeSantis “demanded that the legislature revisit the redistricting and they took away one of the districts that have been a Black district since 1992,” Bullock said.

DeSantis’s map was used in the 2022 midterms, when GOP congressional representation increased by four seats to 20 of the state’s 28 House seats. A new map could claw back some of those gains.

Tennessee sued

Tennessee was sued in federal court last month by civil rights groups and individual voters, including former state Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D), challenging the state’s congressional and state Senate districts drawn with 2020 census data. 

The lawsuit argues that the congressional and state Senate districts are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that were enacted with racially discriminatory intent in order to dilute the votes of minorities in Tennessee.

The plaintiffs asked the court to declare the challenged districts in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments and to prevent future elections from being held under them. 

Louisiana map thrown out

A similar case is going on in Louisiana where the legislature drew one majority-minority district out of six congressional districts despite Louisiana having a black population of 30%.  

A federal judge had ruled that the map was racially discriminatory, violated Section 2 of the VRA, and required legislators to draw a new map ahead of upcoming elections. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was considering the case, but that came to a standstill in June 2022 when the U.S. Supreme Court granted Louisiana’s request to pause the district court ruling and reinstate the map. 

In June, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Alabama case, the court dismissed Louisiana’s appeal and sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit. Oral arguments are scheduled for Oct. 6 in New Orleans.