Under orders from the Supreme Court to produce a voting map that no longer illegally dilutes the power of black voters in Alabama, state lawmakers now face a high-stakes fight to find an acceptable replacement by the end of this week.
A little over a month after the court’s surprise ruling, the Alabama legislature will meet for a special five-day session on Monday, and the vast Republican majority has given little public indication of how it plans to fulfill the mandate to create a second district that allows black voters to elect a representative of their choice, one who might as well be a Democrat.
The effects of the revised map, which is due to pass Friday and be approved by a federal court, could ripple across the country, with other southern states facing similar voting rights challenges and Republicans seeking to cling to a bare majority in the House. of United States Representatives next year.
The session also comes at a crucial time in the debate over the constitutionality of considering race in government decisions, as Conservatives have increasingly undermined the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other long-standing court protections focused on equality and race.
“The eyes of the nation are watching you,” Evan Milligan, one of several Alabama residents who challenged the legality of the map, told lawmakers during a committee hearing in Montgomery on Thursday. “If you can cut out the noise, look within: you can look at history, you can leave a mark on history that will set a standard for this country.”
Alabama has a long list of bitter disputes over the application of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark law stemming from the civil rights movement whose key provisions were struck down by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. Litigation forced the creation of the first Alabama’s majority-black congressional district in 1992, and the seat has been represented by a black Democrat ever since.
But the current fight stems from lawsuits filed to oppose the map drawn after the 2020 census. In a state where 27 percent of the population is black, the Republican-controlled legislature brought together nearly a third of the black population. in that district. The state’s six remaining districts each elected a white Republican.
There is little disagreement that voting in Alabama is highly polarized, but lawyers for the state legislature blamed the situation on politics rather than race. (The Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that a gerrymander discriminating against party voters is a political issue, not a legal one.)
“Alabama’s black ‘elected candidates’ tend to lose elections in Alabama not because they are black or because they are supported by blacks, but because they are Democrats,” the state’s attorneys wrote.
And with about 80 percent of black voters in Alabama identifying as Democrats or leaning toward Democratic candidates, according to the pew research center“That just makes them easy prey in terms of redistricting,” said Seth C. McKee, a University of Oklahoma professor who has written about political realignment in the South. “And once the Republicans get control, it’s hard for them not to dominate.”
But a federal panel of three judges said unanimously the map had likely violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered it redrawn, four months before the 2022 primary election. The Supreme Court, while agreeing to consider the challenge, allowed the map to take effect before the election of November.
Many experts expected the Supreme Court to say in the Alabama case what it essentially said in its decision banning affirmative action in education: making concessions to remedy discrimination against one group inevitably ends up discriminating against other groups.
However, in June, the court narrowly upheld Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the law’s main remaining clause, which prohibits any election law or rule that discriminates on the basis of race, color or language. That decision has already had ramifications elsewhere: A similar lawsuit is now moving forward in Louisiana, while voting rights advocates in Georgia have begun wrangling with the state over whether the ruling affects similar lawsuits there.
“We are already showing how this opinion is going to have a ripple effect,” said Abha Khanna, who represented some of the Alabama plaintiffs as head of Elias Law Group’s redistricting practice. He added: “It is sending a message to states and jurisdictions.”
The Alabama legislature now has until Friday to create another map that wins federal court approval and has solicited public proposals. If the legislature falls short, the map could be challenged again, leaving open the possibility that the court draws its own map and removes the legislature altogether.
“It is critical that Alabama be fairly and accurately represented in Washington,” said Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, while formally summoned the legislature back for special session. “Our legislature knows our state better than the federal courts.”
But he leaves the Republicans with a task that could jeopardize the electoral security of one of their own in Congress. Cook’s nonpartisan political report now marks the once-solidly Republican 1st and 2nd congressional districts as draws, citing “the presumption that one of their seats will eventually become a majority-black seat based in Montgomery and Mobile that comfortably choose a Democrat.”
On Thursday, several black Republicans spoke during the committee hearing, including Belinda Thomas, a Dale County councilwoman and GOP official, who later described herself as “living proof” that the current map made it possible for black Republicans to black candidates were successful. Some residents and officials also expressed concern about the diminishing representation of rural communities and economic opportunities on some of the proposed maps.
Democrats appeared divided on which plan to back, with some lawmakers supporting one that relies on a combination of traditionally Democratic voting blocks to create a new district to avoid drawing racial lines. At least one of the plaintiffs was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with your favorite mapthat would enshrine the 18 counties of Alabama’s Black Belt, the historically rich swath of land that fed slave-labor cotton plantations, into two districts with at least 50 percent black voting populations.
“I want my community and I to have a seat at the table, instead of being on the menu,” said Shalela Dowdy, a Mobile resident and one of the plaintiffs.
But conspicuously absent from the public discussion Thursday was any plan backed by the Republican majority. State Rep. Chris Pringle, a Mobile Republican, said a final map would be shared before a committee meeting Monday, though Democrats balked at being left out of the process and giving the public little time to review a final plan.
“This is a really tortuous process,” said state Rep. Chris England, a Tuscaloosa Democrat. He added that “everyone else has been submitting the maps that they think best represent the state of Alabama, they give everyone a chance to be represented, but the vast majority haven’t.”
Mr Pringle said the committee tasked with overseeing the creation of the new map had been overwhelmed with a number of submissions, including from as far away as France and New Zealand. A little over a dozen had been made public online or in court, with Mr. England share some more maps distributed among the committee on Twitter Friday afternoon.
“We’ve been pretty overwhelmed,” Pringle said.
Adam Liptak contributed reporting from Washington. susan c beach contributed research.