When it comes to moments of unexpected turnabouts, the recent defense of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by Chief Justice John Roberts tops the list. Roberts, a figure infamous for his long-held ambition to dismantle the VRA, instead emerged as the act’s savior in the Allen v. Milligan case.
The highest court in the land, in a narrow 5-4 ruling, decided that Alabama’s congressional map likely violated the VRA’s stand against discriminatory voting practices. Alabama’s audacious bid to redefine the VRA in ways that would have shielded racist redistricting plans was decisively shot down.
Alabama’s GOP was in the dock for drawing up a politically skewed redistricting map. A state where 27 percent of the population is Black had just one Black-majority district out of seven. Alabama’s crafty strategy of concentrating a majority of Black voters into one district and scattering the rest across other districts diluted the political power of Black residents.
In January 2022, a federal district court (including two Trump appointees) concluded that Alabama’s map was in all likelihood in breach of Section 2 of the VRA, which categorically bars voting practices that deny or limit the right to vote based on race.
Roberts, together with Brett Kavanaugh, who once showed a soft spot for the unfounded right-wing “voter fraud” theory, sided with the court’s liberal wing to prevent the VRA from being hollowed out.
The justices ruled against Alabama’s notion of a race-neutral redistricting process, underlining the fact that the real-world impact of the new map was anything but neutral. Roberts wrote off Alabama’s attempt to redefine Section 2 jurisprudence as an unsustainable effort.
Roberts and Kavanaugh’s support for the VRA seems surprising, considering their past moves that weakened Section 2 of the Act. However, their Milligan votes may have been more strategic than altruistic. These votes could have been aimed at countering the mounting public criticism of the Supreme Court as an unapologetic right-wing apparatus.
Post-Milligan, an estimated five House seats could potentially shift to Democrats, putting them back in the driving seat. The fallout from Milligan may result in legal changes in other Southern states as well, including Louisiana and Georgia, which could see a new majority-minority district before the 2024 congressional election.
But the VRA victory comes with a caveat. Roberts and Kavanaugh left the door ajar to re-examine Section 2 in the future. In this era of rampant voter suppression efforts, this leaves the future of voting rights hanging in the balance. But for now, the VRA lives to fight another day, serving as a bulwark against the tide of electoral discrimination.