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Members of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for photographs in the East Conference Room at the court building Oct. 8, 2010 in Washington, D.C.

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Alabama Plays Both Sides of Voting Rights, With Blacks in the Middle

The News: The Supreme Court will consider whether Alabama illegally redrew its legislative districts in a way that weakens minorities’ voting power, taking up the first such case since striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act last year.

Black state lawmakers and other plaintiffs in a pair of cases, which are to be heard in a consolidated argument when the court starts its new session in October, accuse Republican lawmakers of “racial gerrymandering” by packing minority voters into a few districts and preserving heavier white majorities in other districts.

In Alabama, many whites tend to vote for Republicans while blacks tend to favor Democrats.

The black lawmakers argue that the “packing of the majority black districts necessarily increases the political segregation of African Americans and reduces their ability to influence the outcome of legislative elections in the rest of the state.”

A panel of three federal district court judges last year ruled in a 2-1 decision that the redistricting plan was lawful.

The Take: When it comes to blacks voting, the state of Alabama continues to stand in the way.

It was the first state to challenge the Voting Rights Act shortly after its passage in 1965. A case from Alabama last year finally succeeded, convincing the Supreme Court to strike down the law’s Section 5 (pdf), which required states, such as a Alabama, with a history of discrimination, to obtain permission from the federal authorities before changing their voting procedures.

Alabama no longer must clear its voting rules in advance but the Voting Rights Act still prohibits election changes that dilute minorities’ voting rights, as is the question in the redistricting case.

Alabama has tried to have it both ways. Last year the state urged the Supreme Court to strike down Section 5, arguing it wasn’t needed because the state no longer discriminated against minority voters.

But in the case now before the justices, the state stands by Section 5 as the justification for the redrawn district maps.

Which is it, Alabama? The law couldn’t have been unconstitutional in one case but legally sound in the next.

The dissenting judge in the lower court’s ruling that upheld the maps called Alabama’s maneuvering a “cruel irony.” Judge Myron H. Thompson, the only African American on the panel, wrote:

“Even as it was asking the Supreme Court to strike down [Section 5] for failure to speak to current conditions, the State of Alabama was relying on racial quotas with absolutely no evidence that they had anything to do with current conditions, and seeking to justify those quotas with the very provision it was helping to render inert.”

The question here is whether the state’s Republican lawmakers redrew the legislative districts to increase their partisan advantage or their racial advantage. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that maps drawn on the basis of race are unconstitutional.

It’s impossible to entirely separate partisanship from race. Blacks and other minorities most often vote for Democrats, so Republican-drawn maps that reduce the electoral chances for Democrats also can alter the voting strength of minorities.

Alabama Republicans argue that they preserved the number of majority black districts, which is true. They even increased the black majorities. But they did so by pushing blacks out of mostly white districts, which plaintiffs say is intended to disadvantage white Democratic candidates and restrict black voters' influence.

"They were doing their level best to wipe out white Democrats," Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, a plaintiff in the case, said. "They were trying their best to have a Legislature of white Republicans and black Democrats, and then they could ignore the black Democrats.”

This case has implications for minority voting power across multiple states, given that redistricting maps in some two dozen states are in litigation. And, as they proved last year, these justices seem more than willing to strip voting protections for minorities.

Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., writes The Take and is a contributing editor at The Root. He appears on MSNBC and CNN and contributes to NPR. He is a former NPR correspondent and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Give him your “take” on Twitter.

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Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.