Tasha Hyatt has worked to attract black Alabama voters for seven years. The program director at the Carver Museum in Dothan, Alabama, Hyatt organizes voter engagement efforts, works on voter education and polls each election to promote voting. She says she’s often asked the same question by black voters: What’s the point?

“When you go out on the campaign trail, you come into contact with a lot of disgruntled African-Americans,” says Hyatt. “They don’t feel like they have power anyway. You have to overcome that lackluster energy to get people to vote.”

This year, Hyatt says energy could be even harder to fight, as Alabama’s congressional map has been challenged in the US Supreme Court on whether it structurally dilutes black voting power in the state. .

In November 2021, Alabama Republican Governor Kay Ivey approved the newly drawn federal congressional districts based on the 2020 census. The seven-district map, which was drawn by 15 white Republicans and six black Democrats in the state legislature, it contains only one majority-black district, even though Alabama’s black voters make up about 26% of the state. Several black Alabama voters and advocacy groups have challenged the map, arguing that it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits state governments from limiting voting based on race, including through “vote dilution.” » either intentionally dividing communities of color. between districts or group them all into one. Challengers argue that the 2021 map illegally “packages” the majority of the state’s Black voters into the 7th Congressional District and “breaks up” the remaining Black voters in Mobile, Montgomery., and the rural Black Belt in Congressional Districts 1, 2 and 3.

Alabama’s proposed 2021 redistricting plan (left) next to a demographic map (right) in an exhibit filed by plaintiffs alleging the map violates the Voting Rights Act.

In January, a panel of three federal judges, two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump, agreed. Not only did they rule that “black Alabamans are numerous enough to constitute a majority of voting age in a second congressional district,” but they also concluded that “black voters have fewer opportunities than other Alabamans to choose.” candidates of their choice for Congress. The panel directed the state legislature to throw out the map and go back to the drawing board to create another majority black district or “an additional district in which black voters have the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.”

But Alabama appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 in February to reinstate the map pending its final decision in the case. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday, and the outcome could make or break what remains of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Alabama argues that the district court’s order to draw a majority-black second district is equivalent to “racially segregate”. Alabama voters and therefore violates the Constitution. The plaintiffs argue that race has long been one of many factors that mapmakers could use to delineate communities of interest when redistricting. On Tuesday, the court’s conservative justices were unswayed by Alabama’s arguments in favor of racially neutral redistricting, though they also seemed inclined to stick with the original map. (The Alabama Attorney General’s Office did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.)

The Supreme Court may not issue its answer on the legality of the Alabama map until next year. But in the meantime, Alabama voters will go to the polls in November in districts already ruled by a federal court as likely to illegally diminish the voting power of blacks, and whose ultimate fate remains uncertain.

Several Black Alabamans told TIME the situation has prompted them to step up efforts to “get out the vote” as a way to channel their frustration and anger. But Hyatt worries it may be more difficult to convince others to participate, given that three federal judges have confirmed what many already suspected: Alabama blacks may have less power in elections than Alabama whites. “You can’t tell black voters that the system isn’t against them, when we make these advances and it clearly appears to be against us,” says Hyatt. “We still have to pay the same amount of taxes. We still have to do the same things as everyone else. But we don’t have as much of a voice.”

‘We have to stay on this battlefield’

Acquanetta Gaston Poole, the 64-year-old Alabama state organizing manager with the nonprofit Black Voters Matter, says she’s been thinking about the story a lot as she follows her state’s redistricting battle.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was born in many ways from the struggle of Black civil rights activists in Alabama, who marched from Selma to Montgomery to protect Jim Crow’s racist voting laws and drew nationwide attention. “The only way we can make a difference is to get people to vote,” says Poole. “And they’re making it so hard today. But we have to stay on this battlefield.”

John Merrill, Alabama’s Republican secretary of state and the lead defendant in the lawsuit, tells TIME that it’s important to remember that Alabamans can choose to live “wherever they choose to live.” “The fact that people are mobile, and that they can live wherever they want, makes it difficult to place people in particular districts if you’re just trying to assign them by race,” he says.

Chastady Perry, 37, lives in the 2nd Congressional District, one of the districts that the lawsuit alleges “breaks up” communities of black voters and dilutes their voting power. Perry, like Poole, says that she has recently been reflecting on the “many injustices that our parents and grandparents faced.” But Perry also says her frustration has motivated her more than ever to try to get out the vote.

Linda Tullis Sellars, 66, in Birmingham, feels the same way. “It almost makes me want to run for office, if you want to know the truth,” says Ella Sellars. “Because I want to see a change in the democratic process in my state.” Scottie McClaney, 58, also from Birmingham, says that when she tries to fight the feeling of worthlessness when it comes to voting, she reflects on the state’s past. “It’s just been a tradition, a history, that our parents take us to the polls,” she says. “They taught me to vote. People died for us to vote.”

What comes next

Regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court ultimately accepts that Alabama districts engage in illegal vote dilution, the 2022 election results will stand.

This is standard practice when it comes to challenging redistricting maps, says Jeffrey M. Wice, a New York Law School professor who specializes in redistricting. In theory, the Supreme Court could order a new election with a new map for 2023, but that is extremely unlikely. Most likely, if the Supreme Court rules that the districts are illegal, it would be sent to the legislature to create a new map, which in turn could be challenged again in court. This cycle has been repeated in states like North Carolina and Texas for decades, and litigation can take many years before reaching a final resolution. The litigation over the North Carolina map drawn in 1992 was last ruled by the Supreme Court in 2001, meaning nine years of elections occurred while the map was being litigated.

Experts say that cycle can perpetuate injustice. Even if the Supreme Court agrees with the district court and orders Alabama to draw a second majority black district, black voters could still be at a disadvantage, because whoever is elected this year on the current map will have the benefit of being the headline, argues Wice. But based on Tuesday’s oral arguments, legal experts say the high court seems more likely to uphold the map, though potentially on more limited grounds than Alabama is seeking.

The Carver Museum’s Hyatt says she’s spooked by the possibility the Supreme Court could leave the new map of Alabama in place. But “that’s why we have to do the work,” she says. “That’s why we have to make noise. Because black voters don’t feel heard.”

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