In recent years, the United States Supreme Court has dutifully laboured to erode the protections guaranteed under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a civil rights era milestone that aimed to safeguard minority voters from racial discrimination. Now, six decades after the law’s passage, the country’s highest judicial body will decide whether to drop some of the few pretences to justice and equality in US electoral democracy that remain.
Keep in mind that this is the same conservative-majority court that recently brought us the evisceration of Roe v Wade and other assorted sociopathic rulings, such as the one enshrining the constitutional right to carry a gun outside the home. That, by the way, was just a month after the Uvalde elementary school mass killing of 19 children and two adults.
One of the high-profile cases that the Supreme Court is currently hearing deals with Alabama’s congressional redistricting map, which was implemented by that state’s Republican legislature following the census in 2020. The redistricting scheme is a rather transparent violation of the Voting Rights Act. While more than 27 percent of Alabama’s voting-age population is Black, deft cartographic manoeuvres have produced an arrangement in which African American voters have a realistic chance of electing a candidate they like in only one of the state’s seven congressional districts.
In January 2022, a lower federal court ordered that Alabama revamp its discriminatory map in time for the midterm elections in November. The state appealed to the Supreme Court, which blocked the lower court’s ruling and agreed to an expedited hearing of the case. As things stand, residents of Alabama will cast their votes on November 8 according to a racist map that should be illegal.
Among Alabama’s creative arguments is that taking racial factors into account in the interest of more equitable redistricting amounts to a perpetuation of racial discrimination – which is the logical equivalent of saying that it is sexist to address sexism, or that two plus two equals yellow.
Meanwhile, another current Supreme Court case with potentially significant implications for the 2024 presidential election also has to do with the issue of gerrymandering, this time in North Carolina. Earlier this year, the state’s Supreme Court struck down a new congressional map – birthed by its Republican-dominated legislature – for violating the state constitution via egregious partisan districting.
The court imposed an alternate map, the legislature claimed the court’s move was illegal, and – presto – the US federal Supreme Court is now deciding whether to sign off on the so-called “independent state legislature theory”.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law warns that an official endorsement of this theory, until now a fringe concept, would provide US state legislatures with “wide authority to gerrymander electoral maps and pass voter suppression laws”. Partisan lawmaking bodies would accrue essentially unchecked power and influence over the conduct and results of federal elections without the interference and oversight of pesky outfits like state supreme courts.
If the Supreme Court gives its blessing to gerrymandering, the repercussions will hardly be confined to Alabama or North Carolina. Yet, such decisions would be par for the course in the nation’s top court. Chase Madar, a New York lawyer and frequent commentator on law and politics, remarked in an email to me that the Supreme Court has “basically resumed its traditional role as a reactionary and anti-democratic force”.
Over the past decade and a half, the court has worked to systematically disenfranchise minority voters while also reversing campaign finance restrictions to allow Big Money an even more outsized role in the US government. The Voting Rights Act itself underwent extensive assault by the court in high-profile cases in 2013 and 2021, which ruled in favour of discriminatory voting practices. And while several of the characters integral to the “anti-democratic” judicial push remain on the bench – including Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito – the court has now managed to shift even more to the right.
To be sure, a further gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2022 would be far from shocking. After all, institutionalised racism is one of the things the US does best. And as the country currently stands, “redistricting” – even if done fairly – will not rectify the disproportionate poverty and imprisonment rates that afflict ethnic minority communities, or the disproportionate targeting of African Americans by gun-wielding police officers.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, now the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, was quoted recently saying that the Supreme Court cases pertaining to Alabama and North Carolina “could determine whether or not the United States remains as the democracy that we have come to love”. Holder lamented that “unfortunately, we take for granted a democracy that fulfills the promise of one person, one vote”.
Perhaps more unfortunately for Holder, he is hallucinating: his beloved “democracy” has never been about “one person, one vote”. Take, for example, the Electoral College – that obscure, bizarre instrument of structural racism that continues to determine the leader of the free world every four years, US popular vote be damned.
Nor, obviously, does US corporate plutocracy qualify as “rule by the people” – who instead get to contend with mass socioeconomic strife, inequality, and a dearth of healthcare and basic rights while their government goes about dropping bipartisan bombs to “democratise” other people elsewhere. The gargantuan funding that flows into US political campaigns and advertising only enhance the whole electoral farce.
As for the Supreme Court’s role in sustaining the US political charade, Madar noted that “the fact that a majority of the current court was appointed by men who lost the popular vote but got to be president anyway speaks to a deep rot in US democracy”.
So while the jury is still out on how the Supreme Court will rule in either of the gerrymandering cases, you can bet that – whatever the verdict – that rot is not going away anytime soon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.