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Alabama to consider new congressional voting map following Supreme Court decision

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, a special legislative session begins in Montgomery, Ala.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Republican-led legislature is supposed to draw a new map of congressional voting districts. The U.S. Supreme Court said Alabama's current map likely weakens the power of Black voters in Alabama.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang is covering this story. Good morning.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What led Alabama to this point?

WANG: Well, after the 2020 census, Republican state lawmakers approved a new map with only one majority-Black district. And that means there was only one district where Black voters had a realistic chance of electing their preferred candidate to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. That's one district out of seven districts for a state where more than 1 in 4 people are Black. So a group of Black voters, along with other groups in Alabama, sued, and a lower federal court said last year, this is not a close call. This map likely violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and one majority-Black voting district is not enough because you can draw two.

INSKEEP: You said that that ruling was last year. So why is Alabama acting only now?

WANG: Well, the Alabama Republicans appealed this case to the Supreme Court and turned this into an even bigger legal fight over Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and whether race can be considered when redrawing voting maps. And ultimately, the Supreme Court's ruling last month didn't make any changes to race-based redistricting and basically said, we agree with the lower court. Alabama should draw a new map with more than one majority-Black district. But, of course, that Supreme Court ruling didn't come until months after last year's midterm elections. So the fact is, Alabama voted last year with illegally drawn voting districts.

INSKEEP: Oh, which would give - if you look at the partisan difference - Republicans an extra seat advantage in what turned out to be a very, very close congressional election. What was the Supreme Court's rationale for waiting?

WANG: Well, here's where we get into some of the legal weeds here. When the Supreme Court decided to take up this Alabama case back in early 2022, it also put a pause on the lower court's order for a new map to be drawn. And one of the conservative justices, Brett Kavanaugh, wrote an opinion, and it talked about this vague legal idea. Court watchers call it the Purcell principle. And the idea is that federal courts should not make changes to voting rules close to an election to avoid confusing voters. But exactly how close is too close to an election? The court has not been clear about that. And there was enough time to draw a new voting map, a new congressional map, last year, which probably would not have confused voters who were expecting a new map anyway. You know, I talked to Gilda Daniels, a former Justice Department official who now teaches at The University of Baltimore's law school. And Daniels told me the Supreme Court put the voting rights of Alabamians at risk.

GILDA DANIELS: You can't get in a time machine now and go back and say, OK, you now have an additional district. Now vote under this fair and equitable map, this nondiscriminatory map. We can't go back. We can only go forward.

INSKEEP: They cannot go back and revote the 2022 election where Republicans got this little advantage. But how could a new map change the next election?

WANG: Well, the groups who filed a lawsuit over Alabama's current map are looking to see if there are two majority-Black voting districts in this new map, and, if there are, that opens up the possibility of Alabama doubling the number of Democrats representing the state in the U.S. House of Representatives from one to two. And there may be ripple effects from the Supreme Court's ruling in this Alabama case. You know, more House seats could be at play because new maps may be coming from other states, including Louisiana and Georgia.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks.

WANG: You're very welcome, Steve. 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.

Hansi Lo Wang
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.