Why South Carolina and Louisiana Voters Are Still Waiting for Congressional Maps

When voters cast their ballots this fall in South Carolina and Louisiana, they’ll be voting with congressional maps deemed unlawful by federal courts.

In South Carolina, a chapter of the NAACP sued over a map that attorneys claim discriminates against Black voters. In Louisiana, a group of mostly-white individuals argued the state discriminated against white voters when lawmakers enacted a map featuring two majority-Black districts. In each case, federal district courts struck the maps down for being unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. 

The two cases reflect the complicated role that race and politics play in the redrawing of districts, whether it’s a county council or a state’s congressional makeup. Decade after decade, new census data prompts redrawing efforts in legislatures across the country. With Democrats and Republicans eyeing potential political advantages, the process inevitably leads to litigation.

“The key problem in U.S. redistricting has long been that the politicians get to draw the districts,” David Lublin, a political science professor at American University who studies race and representation in government, told Democracy Docket in a phone interview. “So they have enormous incentives to draw them in ways that will advantage themselves.”

The cases also demonstrate how crucial the courts’ role is in determining where and for whom voters will cast their ballots. And how in many cases, especially in an election year, the timing of the court’s ruling is almost as important as the opinion itself.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a long-awaited ruling on whether South Carolina’s map was racially-gerrymandered, while it earlier granted a request from Louisiana officials and civil rights groups to use a gerrymandered map — redrawn to fix a Voting Rights Act violation — as the case continues in the lower court.

The South Carolina lawsuit is not your typical racial gerrymander case.

At first glance, the Louisiana and South Carolina cases may seem straightforward, but they involve claims that comprise two complicated cases for the nation’s highest court.

In South Carolina, the complaint filed by the state’s NAACP chapter against Republican legislative leaders centers on lawmakers’ decision to move over 30,000 Black voters from Charleston County out of the state’s 1st Congressional District and into the 6th Congressional District in Senate Bill 865, which the GOP-controlled Legislature passed in January 2022, over eight months after the 2020 census results were released.

The move effectively packs Black voters in the 6th Congressional District, while diluting Black voter strength in the 1st, 2nd and 5th Congressional Districts, the plaintiffs allege. A federal district judge agreed in part, striking down the 1st Congressional District for an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

South Carolina Republicans, who argued that they were motivated by political objectives, which Court precedent allows, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices heard oral argument on Oct. 11, 2023. But the Court didn’t issue a ruling until seven months later, despite both sides asking the Court to issue a decision by January of this year. Why?

While one can only guess the Court’s exact reasoning, Harvard Law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos explained last year in an article for Harvard Law Today that the South Carolina case is a bit unusual. It’s the first case before the Court where the plaintiffs alleged that the racial makeup of a district “was artificially suppressed, not artificially enhanced,” referring to the districts out of which Black voters were moved — not the district to which they were moved.

In a phone interview with Democracy Docket, he said the delayed ruling from the Court suggests that it found “this to be a hard case. I think if the Court thought that this was a simple racial gerrymandering case the Court could have decided it months ago,” Stephanoupoulos said.

Lublin told Democracy Docket that in the past, it’s usually been predominately-Black districts that have been challenged as unconstitutional gerrymanders. “In this case, it was a white district that’s being shut down as a racial gerrymander,” Lublin said.

In a 6-3 decision issued Thursday, the majority-conservative Court found that South Carolina’s congressional map is not unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered, reversing the lower court decision.

The opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito states that there is “no direct evidence” that the Legislature relied on race when it drew District 1, and that the evidence provided to support that conclusion fell “far short of showing that race, not partisan preferences, drove the districting process.”

Historically, racial gerrymander cases started with white voters. The Louisiana case is a ‘textbook example.’

Louisiana’s case may be even more complicated because it concerns a congressional map struck down for an unconstitutional racial gerrymander that was enacted by the Legislature in order to fix a Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act violation with the original map, demonstrating the difficulty states sometimes have with redrawing for partisan representation while avoiding racial discrimination. “This is where the courts often find themselves in a conundrum,” Jeffrey Wice, a professor at New York Law and a redistricting expert, told Democracy Docket.

The makeup of Louisiana’s congressional districts has been the subject of litigation since 2022, when the NAACP and a group of Black voters challenged the state’s original map — H.B. 1 — that only had one majority-Black district.

After a lengthy legal battle, the Legislature passed a new map in January of this year with two majority-Black districts. “You have a situation where the Legislature drew a map it knew it could live with,” Wice said. “And the voting rights groups saw a map where they can elect a second minority-preferred candidate. It was a temporary alliance based on political need.”

But a group of mostly-white voters sued after the new map was enacted, alleging that it was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. In April, a federal district court sided with the plaintiffs and blocked the implementation of the map. And in a surprising turn, attorneys for both the state and the NAACP sought an emergency order from the Supreme Court to allow Louisiana to use the blocked map for the election this fall, which the Court granted.

“On the merits, the Court would find this a challenging case,” said Stephanopolous, who drew similarities between the Louisiana case and the pioneering racial gerrymander cases of the 90s

In the 1993 case Shaw v. Reno, for example, a group of white voters in North Carolina sued over a congressional map that featured two majority-Black districts, alleging the state created an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment — the same claim the white plaintiffs in Louisiana are making.

While the majority conservative Supreme Court found that the plaintiffs did have a claim under the Equal Protection Clause, it stopped short of concluding that the clause had been violated, instead sending the case back to the district court that previously ruled against the plaintiffs. But the case established the legal principle that racial considerations in redistricting are subject to a certain standard imposed by the courts.

The Louisiana case, Stephanopolous said, is “almost a textbook setup. You get either a VRA lawsuit or fear of a VRA lawsuit, causing a state to design an additional Black majority district. But then that race-conscious creation of the additional black majority district prompts the racial gerrymandering claim by white voters. So Louisiana is kind of like a blast from the past.”

The historical function of the early racial gerrymander claims, Stephanopolous said, was to “limit minority representation, not to result in more representation for minority voters.”

“Racial gerrymandering claims are consistent with the Court’s general preference for a colorblind Constitution. So, historically, racial gerrymandering claims have coded as conservative claims, not liberal claims. Whereas claims under the Voting Rights Act … that’s a very liberal statute, it was one of the key statutes of the Civil Rights era.”

Voters in South Carolina and Louisiana will continue to wait for fair congressional maps.

In March, the same federal district court in South Carolina that struck down the state’s congressional map for an unconstitutional racial gerrymander ruled that the state can use it for its upcoming elections. Months later in Louisiana, the same federal district court that struck down the state’s map for an unconstitutional racial gerrymander set a schedule for the Legislature to pass a new one by June 3.

The South Carolina decision followed months of waiting for a ruling from the Supreme Court. Inversely, the federal court in Louisiana set a timeline for redrawing a new map while state officials and the NAACP were seeking an expedited ruling from the Court. Last week, the Court granted requests to allow the Louisiana map with two Black districts to remain in place during the appeal.

The Court order cited Purcell v. Gonzalez, a Supreme Court case that established what’s known as the Purcell principle, which is the idea that courts should not change voting or election rules too close to an election in order to avoid confusion for voters and election officials; though the Court did not set specific rules regarding timing. But in the South Carolina case, in which voters await a decision from the Court, Republican legislators also cited Purcell when they asked the federal district court to allow the state to use the blocked map in 2024.

“The thing about the Purcell principle is that it cuts both ways,” said Jared Evans, senior policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “It doesn’t discriminate based on partisanship.”

While the Court may find the merits of the Louisiana case challenging, Evans, who helped litigate the Louisiana case, noted in a phone interview with Democracy Docket that the current congressional map achieved a rare consensus among state officials and civil rights groups.

“I don’t see it as that complicated because the map that the Legislature passed satisfies everyone (except the plaintiffs in the gerrymander lawsuit),” Evans said. “It expresses the deep desire of the Legislature to have this map enacted and to rid themselves of this process.”

While he’s not absolutely certain on next steps, Evans anticipates that later this year or next year, the federal district court will maintain jurisdiction and proceed with a remedial hearing where both sides (state officials and the NAACP) will submit maps. Whichever map Louisiana ends up implementing will be for 2026.

“There will continue to be litigation, until the Supreme Court says Louisiana can’t have two Black districts,” Evans said.