Lawsuits and allegations of racism persist as Alabama begins controversial redistricting process
Just before Halloween, Alabama lawmakers will return to the state's historic capital in a bid to address one of the most controversial issues in state politics nationwide: redistricting.
Last Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey sent a letter to the state's legislators summoning them back to Montgomery for a special session to finalize the drawing of new districts in Alabama. The session, which begins on October 28, will be the second special session convening in as many months.
In addition to calling for the special session, Ivey's letter also praised the statewide campaign to boost Alabama's participation in the national census. State officials had feared that low U.S. Census engagement coupled with population loss in some areas might cause Alabama to give up one of its seven seats in Congress. This tension was heightened by the pandemic-related delay in the delivery of Alabama's final Census statistics, which the state did not receive until August 16. Once the final numbers arrived, lawmakers learned that the state did, in fact, maintain its seven congressional seats. The Census also revealed that Alabama's population had grown to just over 5 million residents.
Every decade, in the wake of the U.S. Census, legislators from across the nation, including Alabama, meet to update legislative and congressional districts. Ideally, redistricting is supposed to ensure that district boundaries accurately and fairly reflect the population shifts that have occurred over a ten year period. Redistricting is also supposed to allow voters to elect officials that understand and serve the unique needs of a district and its people.
In reality, however, redistricting is usually extremely controversial because competing interests often clash as maps are updated. Politicians often attempt to use the re-drawing of district lines as a means of choosing voters, rather than allowing voters to choose them. The process of gerrymandering, or deliberately manipulating districts for political power, is an ever present threat to fair political representation and Alabama is no exception.
Historically, the Yellowhammer State has been a poor steward of ensuring that the "one person, one vote" principle has been upheld. The state's Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment maintains a history of Alabama's reapportionment and redistricting efforts and according to it, Alabama failed to meet its own constitutional requirement to reapportion districts by population for 71 years, from 1901 until 1972. During that period, the state openly supported gerrymandered districts which effectively disenfranchised a significant portion of the state's Black population. And while open such open and brazen defiance of state and national law is no longer politically tenable, Alabama's lawmakers are still being accused of using redistricting to minimize the political power of Black voters.
In late September, four Alabama voters and two state senators jointly filed a lawsuit against Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill in protest of the current redistricting plan, which was enacted by the state legislature in 2011. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, and Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, are leading the charge in opposing the current state's districting plan under the lawsuit. Both politicians have been stalwart advocates for social justice in the Alabama legislature for years and both are expected to be outspoken voices during the upcoming special session. Their suit alleges that Alabama's districts are currently "malapportioned and racially gerrymandered," in such a way that Black voters have been packed into a single majority-Black Congressional district.
The state's current district maps appear to support the lawsuit's allegations. Black lawmakers hold one-fourth of the seats in the Alabama Legislature, closely mirroring the state population, which is just under 26% Black. But in Washington, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, is the only Black member among Alabama’s seven representatives in the U.S. House, equivalent to 14% of the delegation. Advocates for greater equity have proposed the idea of a "whole county plan" where counties remain whole rather than being sliced and diced by gerrymandered district lines. This plan, reform advocates contend, will provide a more balanced and accurate reflection of Alabama's voting public while also creating a political environment more in tune with the "one person, one vote" principle.
“What is wrong with the Alabama map is they have one majority-minority district — what we refer to as an opportunity district for African Americans — when they should have two,” said Marina Jenkins, litigation director for the National Redistricting Foundation.
“When they redrew the lines in 2011 they had an opportunity to create two districts that would be opportunity districts for the African American communities in Alabama, and instead of doing that they packed more than necessary into congressional district seven, Congresswoman Sewell’s district, in order to decrease the African American population in neighboring districts,” Jenkins said.
The lawsuit argues Alabama should have a congressional map that would “afford African Americans an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in at least two districts.”
State Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, told reporters last week that the legislature's reapportionment committee, which he co-chairs, will meet on October 26 to review and approve the tentative district boundary maps that will be considered by the legislature once the special session officially convenes. McClendon's committee is tasked with approving maps for the state's seven congressional districts, 35 Senate districts, 105 House districts, and eight State Board of Education districts. The plan for each of the four district groups will be included in legislative bills that detail the district maps on a block-by-block basis.
McClendon admitted that legislators might indeed have some influence over how districts are redrawn, giving some credence to the accusation leveled in the lawsuit.
“Quite a few will have some preferences on what change in their district they would prefer,” McClendon told media outlets over the summer when asked about legislative input and influence on redistricting.
“One of my jobs is to get enough positive votes on the plan to get it passed,” explained McClendon, who is not seeking re-election. “So, there is some importance in trying to make these folks as happy as possible.”
The updated district maps will have to be approved in time for candidates to qualify for the 2022 election cycle. January 28 is the party qualification deadline for political hopefuls looking to run in the May 24 primary.
Last May, the reapportionment committee approved guidelines it will follow in drawing the new maps. The U.S. Constitution, federal law, court decisions, and previous redistricting efforts were all factors in developing the guidelines.
Among the guidelines:
A redistricting plan will not dilute minority voting strength and will comply the Voting Rights Act.
Districts will be composed of contiguous and reasonably compact geography. Contiguity by water is allowed.
Putting two incumbents in the same district will be avoided whenever possible.
Districts will respect communities of interest, neighborhoods, and political subdivisions, like cities and counties, to the extent practicable.
The Legislature will try to minimize the number of counties in each district.
The Legislature will try to preserve the cores of existing districts.
With October 28 only days away, Alabama will soon show the political world if it will continue its long legacy of voter disenfranchisement.