Wisconsin’s redistricting litigation may be over (for now) but last week the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could have disastrous consequences for fair maps across the country. This case, Merrill v. Milligan, has the potential to finally obliterate the protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the fundamental Civil Rights law protecting equal access to voting and participation in the political process. Read our explainer on the VRA and redistricting.
The case, Merrill v. Milligan, comes from Alabama, where new congressional maps drawn in the recent redistricting cycle were challenged under the VRA for “packing” and “cracking” Black voters.
In this case, a three-judge panel trial court found that Alabama’s congressional districting maps likely violated the VRA and enjoined them. The reasoning behind that decision was that when Alabama’s legislators created only one majority-Black district and divided up other Black residents across majority-white districts, the court said that their voting power could be diluted violating the VRA. This is in a state with seven congressional districts and 26.5% of the population identifies as Black or African American. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court put the federal court’s ruling that invalidated the maps on hold temporarily when it decided to hear the case. Now, the Court will decide if the Alabama maps with only one majority-Black district can comply with the VRA.
The Court’s decision will impact states beyond Alabama: if the Court guts the VRA, it will eliminate protections that have applied across the country for decades. This U. S. Supreme Court has demonstrated that it is no friend to voting rights– based on last week’s oral arguments, and the Court’s previous decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) to essentially erase Section 5 of the VRA, this seems likely.
If the Court adopts Alabama’s arguments, it will result in a new reading of the VRA, divorced from the Court’s past holdings and Congress’s original purpose in passing this vital piece of civil rights legislation. Alabama asserts it can ignore race when drawing districts and still comply with the VRA, even if the resulting maps treat voters differently based on race. This “race-blind” approach, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson pointed out, would ignore the fact that Congress specifically amended the VRA in 1982 to clarify that discriminatory intent isn’t required to prevail under the VRA—only discriminatory results.
Applying the Court’s current law on the VRA, Justice Kagan observed, this case would be “kind of a slam dunk” in favor of the voters challenging Alabama’s district maps. This says a lot: very few VRA challenges have been successful in recent years. For the Court to throw out such a strong challenge would likely spell the end of the VRA’s protections in most states. Courts have applied the VRA in Wisconsin for decades, including to require new assembly districts to be adjusted in 2012 to prevent the illegal dilution of Latinx voting power in Milwaukee.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in Merrill v. Milligan by the end of June next year. In the meantime, the Court will hear another election law case later this term: Moore v. Harper. Stay tuned for updates on both cases.