A Supreme Court decision on Alabama redistricting could shake up 2024
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
This week, the Supreme Court handed down a surprise 5-4 decision in an Alabama voting rights case. Two conservative justices, John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh, joined the court's three liberal justices to affirm a lower court decision that said Alabama's Republican-drawn congressional map violated Black voters' rights, which are protected by the Voting Rights Act. It could have far-reaching impacts across the Deep South and on the 2024 elections, where control of the U.S. House is at stake. To talk more about what this decision means for congressional elections, we're joined now by David Wasserman, an election analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Welcome.
DAVID WASSERMAN: Thanks a lot.
DAVIS: Considering the conservative supermajority of the court, how surprising was the decision to folks like yourself who closely watch these redistricting cases?
WASSERMAN: I can't say I'm shocked because the initial federal court ruling that struck down Alabama's congressional map before the Supreme Court put a stay on it was decided by, in part, two Trump appointees. And so there was some support from conservative members of the judiciary for a more proportional map that reflected Alabama's Black population. Currently, Alabama, of course, has six Republican seats that are heavily white and one hyperminority district, the 7th District, held by Democrat Terri Sewell. And this ruling will unpack that district.
DAVIS: Is the impact, then, that it's likely that it will result in two districts in Alabama where a Black lawmaker could win?
WASSERMAN: Exactly. And what the court said in this narrow majority ruling was that the Voting Rights Act interpretation that has been Supreme Court precedent for decades supports the plaintiff's claim that it's possible to draw a reasonably compact set of two Black-majority districts in the state. The court said, you know, because they are reasonably configured, then they should be drawn.
DAVIS: At issue, as you noted, in Alabama was that 27% of the state is Black, and only one of those seven districts for the U.S. House was considered a reliably safe district in terms of electing a Black lawmaker. But that is a reality in many other states with significant Black populations as well, isn't it?
WASSERMAN: Well, it's true in several other states. In Louisiana, it's also possible to draw an additional Black-majority seat versus the current plan, which features five heavily Republican, white districts and one majority-Black district that snakes from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. We could see basically a carbon copy of what's next in Alabama play out in Louisiana, where a second district is mandated by federal courts. And we almost never see seats flip from solid Republican to solid Democrat or vice versa overnight. This is a really rare case where that could happen, and that's a game-changer when you consider that the margin in the House right now is so thin.
DAVIS: Are there other states that you think could be impacted by this decision?
WASSERMAN: Yes. We're also watching litigation over racial redistricting in Georgia and South Carolina and perhaps, to a lesser extent, Texas. Those states are a bit murkier because, for example, in South Carolina, it's not really possible to draw two Black-majority districts without some pretty acrobatic cartography. And courts could decide that it's simply too ugly or too noncompact to do that there. In Georgia, it might be possible to draw a fourth Black-majority district in metro Atlanta. And in Texas, it's really hard to draw districts that are a majority of one racial minority group in some places because of how diverse suburbs of Houston and Dallas are and how many different racial and ethnic groups live in those communities.
DAVIS: If states are forced to redraw their districts, do you anticipate that that's going to happen in time for the 2024 elections?
WASSERMAN: Yes. It's clear as the result of the Supreme Court ruling that Alabama's map is now invalid and that a federal court, one way or the other, is going to either order Alabama's legislature to redraw it in a way that's compliant or enact a remedial plan of its own. Alabama's filing deadline for its primary is not until November. There's an even longer time period in Louisiana. The filing deadline is not until next August. So we are likely to see both those maps change in time for 2024. It could be trickier in several other states where cases aren't as far along.
DAVIS: It does seem rather significant, even though we're talking about a small number of states and potentially races, but the House is decided by very close margins. Republicans right now have just a four-seat majority. This ruling could potentially have a major impact on how the House is configured.
WASSERMAN: You're absolutely right. And redistricting is destiny. In an era of highly polarized voting, they're pretty well sorted on the map. And Republicans thought they had an insurance policy heading into 2024 because of their new majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court, allowing them to pad their margin and draw more advantageous districts there. This not only offsets that but also could impact what Republicans decide to draw in North Carolina because they might be more risk averse now. Then you also consider that Democrats could take advantage of the new judicial reality in the state courts of New York and potentially redraw that map in their favor, and all of a sudden, there's potential for redistricting to benefit Democrats heading into 2024. That's the opposite of what we thought a couple months ago.
DAVIS: You previously wrote about these types of cases that the Supreme Court, quote, "has struggled, much like trying to define obscenity, to strike a balance between minority voting rights and sane-looking maps." It does still seem like getting race right in representation is a uniquely difficult task.
WASSERMAN: This is the age-old question that courts have wrestled with for half a century. How do you achieve one person, one vote at the same time you assure fair representation for disparate groups when those groups might not neatly live together on a map, and it sometimes requires rather unorthodox lines that look like abstract art to achieve a majority minority district? And so striking that balance is something that courts may never fully resolve.
DAVIS: That's David Wasserman with the Cook Political Report. Thank you so much for your time.
WASSERMAN: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.