The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), a federal law adopted during the height of the civil rights movement thanks to the tireless efforts of Black activists, enforced the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that the right to vote can’t be denied “on account of race” and addressed barriers that prevented Black voters from casting their ballots. The law, which has been amended five times since its adoption, currently provides a wide range of protections to ensure that eligible voters are not denied the right to vote on account of race. In response to the great success of the VRA in expanding and protecting voting rights across the country, those seeking to suppress voters have focused on stripping the law of its most crucial provisions. Unfortunately, in recent years, far-reaching efforts seeking to curtail the VRA have made noticeable progress.
On Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022 the Supreme Court held oral argument in Merrill v. Milligan, a case that will decide the future of Section 2.
A well-known example of this came in 2013 when the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the heart of the VRA, thereby ending the preclearance regime that ensured jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression and racial discrimination obtained approval before changing any voting laws or redrawing maps. This decision meant that another part of the VRA, Section 2, became an even more crucial tool in fighting back against discriminatory voting laws and maps, particularly in states that were previously under preclearance. In response to this shift, voter suppressors found a new target.
The most litigated section of the VRA, 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.” This provision provides a mechanism for challenging laws and maps that were enacted with a discriminatory purpose or have a discriminatory impact. A case out of Alabama focused on Section 2 is currently pending before the nation’s highest court and the future application of this crucial provision rests in the hands of the Court’s 6-3 conservative bench.
What does a redistricting case out of Alabama have to do with Section 2?
Last fall, voters and non-profit organizations sued over Alabama’s new congressional map drawn with 2020 census data, arguing it diluted the voting strength of Black Alabamians by only drawing one majority-Black district in violation of Section 2. After a district court blocked the map and ordered the creation of a new map with two majority-Black districts, the Supreme Court stepped in and paused this order, ensuring that the state’s previously blocked map — which only contains one majority-Black district — is in place for the 2022 elections. The Court then placed the case on its merits docket and held oral argument on Oct. 4, 2022. The Court’s decision is expected to come down by early summer 2023.
Given Section 2’s wide range of protections — particularly relevant in lawsuits challenging maps in states with histories of racial discrimination such as Georgia and Louisiana — any change to its framework could have monumental effects on voting rights across the country.