The Supreme Court ruled against the state of Alabama for violating the voting rights of its Black residents. The ruling, centered on Alabama’s efforts to draw district boundaries in ways that limit the power of Black voters in the state, represents a significant victory for voting rights advocates, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s increasingly conservative stances concerning voting and other critical issues in recent years.

Redrawing district lines, limiting Black representation

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama had violated its Black citizens’ rights by drawing district lines that created only one majority-Black congressional district out of seven total districts, despite Black residents comprising one-fourth of the state’s population. In doing so, voting rights advocates argued Alabama was denying Black Alabamans a second congressional representative. In contrast, the Republican-controlled Alabama state government denied race played a role in redrawing the district lines.

Thursday’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling upheld lower court rulings that the Alabama lines violated Black residents’ ability to have adequate representation. Chief Justice John Roberts, one of the court’s six conservative justices, wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by the court’s more liberal justices, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The ruling means Alabama must now redraw its district lines again, this time more racially equitably.

Test case for conservative Supreme Court

This case was considered an important test for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the conservative Supreme Court. The Voting Rights Act prevents states from enacting policies that discriminate against voters based on race or other protected categories. Various provisions of the act allow the federal government to oversee state-level voting policies in areas with a history of discrimination and intervene if new policies unfairly target minority populations. However, as the Supreme Court has grown more conservative in recent years, it has taken a much narrower view of enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

Most notably, in 2013, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling that eliminated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the portion of the law that required states with a history of racial discrimination to preclear changes to their voting laws with federal authorities to make sure they were not creating policies that would unduly burden Black voters. Since this ruling, various states have enacted policies targeting Black voters, and fighting these policies in court has been more challenging. Just last year, the Supreme Court allowed the 2022 election to take place in Alabama using the map the court now has deemed illegal. However, Thursday’s ruling, drawing upon Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, bans racially discriminatory practices in voting laws.

A ‘surprise” ruling divides the Supreme Court

Given the Supreme Court’s conservative leanings and recent history of rulings, journalist Philip Lewis described Thursday’s ruling as a “surprise.”

Despite most justices siding with voting rights advocates, four of the Supreme Court’s conservatives dissented. Clarence Thomas wrote that the ruling forced “Alabama to intentionally redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control a number of seats roughly proportional to the black share of the State’s population.” Espousing a narrow interpretation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution, Thomas continued, “Section 2 demands no such thing, and, if it did, the Constitution would not permit it.”

For now, at least, Thomas’ view is in the minority. Despite its recent actions, the majority of the Supreme Court recognizes racial discrimination still exists when it comes to voting in the United States, and this most recent ruling gives voting rights advocates hope they can still fight to ensure equal representation for all Americans.