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Black voters in Alabama say Supreme Court decision dilutes their voting power


African American voters in Alabama say a Supreme Court decision this week dilutes their voting power in congressional elections. Justices blocked lower court rulings that would have forced the state to create an additional majority-Black district. But Republicans say race should not be the main factor for drawing congressional maps. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Evan Milligan sees the Supreme Court's ruling as a significant setback for Black voters like him.

EVAN MILLIGAN: It's disappointing.

ELLIOTT: Milligan is one of four voters who sued over Alabama's new congressional map, along with Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP. They argued that having only one majority-Black congressional district out of seven was unfair, given that African Americans make up more than a quarter of Alabama's population and are spread all over the state.

MILLIGAN: A majority-Black district or plurality-Black district is important to ensure that Black Alabamians will have an opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.

ELLIOTT: The district court agreed, ordering Alabama to create a second minority district, a ruling upheld by a federal appeals court. But the Supreme Court's decision means the current map will remain in place for this year's election. And then later, the justices will take up the case on its merits. Milligan says he's not ready to give up hope. For him, this fight is personal. He grew up in Montgomery, the endpoint of the 1965 march from Selma that prompted Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. He says he lived in a home with four generations where the right to vote was sacred.

MILLIGAN: It was a house with a lot of conversation about the legacy of voting rights work and, you know, just the amount of resiliency and struggle that Black families have encountered, particularly in the Deep South and Alabama. So for me, voting is something that is a connection to that particular legacy.

ELLIOTT: Milligan is concerned about a shifting of norms in terms of thinking about how race should shape public policy. Alabama's attorney general and other Republican officials would like to remove race as a predominant factor in redistricting.

JOHN WAHL: Race should not be the first thing that we look at when drawing district lines.

ELLIOTT: John Wahl is chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

WAHL: I look at every person as an individual, no matter what the color of their skin or their background or their race or their religion. And that's how I want to look at it. I want to look at every district not based on race, but based on what would be best for our state and our community.

ELLIOTT: Wahl says changing the map at this point would have been too disruptive.

WAHL: This ship has already left the harbor here. This election cycle is in progress. People understand when the election is, what the lines are. Let's not add any undue questions or, you know, undue hardship for our voters or for our candidates.

ELLIOTT: Wahl also questions the motive behind the push for a second majority-Black district given voting patterns in the state. African Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly democratic.

WAHL: Someone is trying to use this politically because they see a chance to pick up another Democrat district.

ELLIOTT: But Democrats say the Republican-controlled state legislature was consolidating GOP dominance with its map. State Representative Chris England is chair of the Alabama Democratic Party.

CHRIS ENGLAND: But this is just as much about democracy and competitive elections than it is some partisan victory. What is impacted here is, you know, Black people's ability to elect minority representation. Their vote doesn't count nearly as much as their white counterparts.

ELLIOTT: He thinks the Supreme Court's decision sends a message to other jurisdictions redrawing election maps.

ENGLAND: I know people are going to see this decision as almost permission to continue on the pathway of diluting the power of voters of color all over the country.

ELLIOTT: England sees this as a rollback of the civil rights gains achieved in the 1960s and says it's time for Congress to step in and restore federal scrutiny of any election rule changes that might dilute minority voting power.

ENGLAND: I mean, we're looking at - what is it? - the Voting Rights Act of 1965, right? We're looking at that being completely wiped off the books. If that's not enough to create a sense of urgency, I don't know what is.

ELLIOTT: Alabama's lone Black U.S. representative, Democrat Terri Sewell, echoed that sense of urgency, calling on Congress to enact the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.