The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday hears oral arguments in a South Carolina case that could make it exceedingly difficult for Black voters to challenge racially discriminatory district maps and limit their ability to elect a representative who might fight for them.
Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP is one of the most consequential voting rights cases in recent memory. Brenda Murphy, the president of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, told Capital B that “Black communities must have somebody who understands their concerns.”
“Important decisions are made based on who the representative is. And these decisions affect people’s ability to live a quality life,” she said.
Since the 2020 census and former President Donald Trump’s reelection defeat, states across the South have been engaged in high-profile legal disputes as GOP legislators try to use race to secure a partisan advantage during the map-drawing process.
In January, a three-judge panel said that Republican state lawmakers had expelled some 30,000 Black voters in Charleston County from the 1st Congressional District, then moved them to the 6th District, which James Clyburn, a Black Democrat, has represented since 1993. This change diluted the political power of Black voters by “packing” them into certain areas, and the panel said that congressional boundaries have to be redrawn before any other races take place.
Clyburn has faced scrutiny over the past few months for having reportedly struck a deal that added more Black voters to his district but essentially guaranteed that his party wouldn’t be able to win other seats in South Carolina.
The GOP has carried the 1st District almost every year for the past four decades. In 2020, however, the contest was tight: Republican Nancy Mace beat Democrat Joe Cunningham, who won the seat in 2018 in a political upset, by just about 1 percentage point.
To weaken Democrats’ competitiveness, GOP legislators gave the district a “stronger Republican tilt” after the 2020 census, the panel explained, and they did this in large part via the “bleaching of African American voters out of the Charleston County portion” of the area.
The effects of these efforts, which prompted criticism that GOP lawmakers were using Black voters as “political pawns,” were clear: Last November, when Mace ran for reelection, she trounced Democrat Annie Andrews by 14 percentage points.
Race and party are linked
Republican state legislators insist that they were motivated not by race but instead by partisanship. But disentangling the two in South Carolina (and many other states) is almost impossible.
CNN exit polls found that some 90% of Black voters in South Carolina cast their ballots for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. And 78% of Black adults in the state identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, per the Pew Research Center. (There’s a reason that Black voters have long been called the backbone of the Democratic Party, which since the 1960s has more consistently advanced civil rights for marginalized groups.)
Advocates worry that the Supreme Court might side with GOP lawmakers and decide that drawing district lines that undermine Black voters’ influence — or racial gerrymandering — is OK as long as it’s done to reach a partisan goal. And since the high court has declined to hear lawsuits against maneuvering that sorts people based on their party affiliation — or partisan gerrymandering — Black voters wouldn’t be able to rely on a federal solution to the issue.
This outcome could deny Black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere in the region a valuable tool for pushing back against racially discriminatory maps and restrict their ability to elect the candidates of their choice — candidates who might direct attention to community needs and deliver crucial public resources.
“I believe, again, that [the redrawn map] doesn’t open up an avenue for [Black voters] to elect someone who will speak up and advocate for historical concerns that continue to arise and just continue to escalate,” Taiwan Scott — who, along with the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, brought the case — said last year, referring to issues such as heirs’ property and the expansion of an airport that’s displaced a Black church founded in the 1880s. “When do we get the attention we deserve? … We should have an advocate for us.”
Michelle Mapp, the advocacy director of the ACLU of South Carolina, which is part of a legal team that filed a brief in support of the appellees, said that she and her colleagues are hopeful that the court will affirm the panel’s decision.
But they’re also anxious. The stakes are high.
“Ultimately,” she told Capital B, “this case is about people’s voices — whose voice is heard and counted, whose voice matters in the political process.”
Mapp noted that she isn’t too surprised that we’re seeing so many battles over race and map-drawing, including in Alabama, where GOP state legislators sought to defy the Supreme Court’s mandate to create another majority-Black congressional district and reflect the fact that Black Americans make up more than a quarter of the state’s voting-age population.
When it became obvious that Trump would lose his reelection bid to Biden, Republican lawmakers latched onto the spurious claim that the contest had been stolen and suggested that Black votes were illegitimate.
“These redistricting cases and the racial and partisan gerrymandering that’s followed the census and the redrawing of maps are just a continuation of that rhetoric,” Mapp said. “We have to be aware that gerrymandering is happening at every level of government, and we have to be prepared to challenge these things.”
Just last month, Phil Fisher, the white mayor of Clinton, Mississippi, which is 40% Black, dismissed a map endorsed by the local NAACP that would’ve added another heavily Black ward and helped Clinton satisfy the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Once oral arguments conclude, the wait begins. Attorneys have asked that the justices make a decision by early next year, so that a new map can be adopted by the 2024 congressional elections.
“We’re hoping that the Supreme Court rules in our favor, because this case really is about the people,” Murphy said. “We’re hoping for an outcome that’s good for all people.”