Under a Supreme Court order to produce an election map that no longer illegally dilutes the power of black voters in Alabama, state lawmakers are now in a high-stakes race to find an acceptable replacement by the end of this week.
Just over a month after the court’s surprise ruling, the Alabama legislature will meet on Monday for a five-day special session, with the Republican majority giving little public guidance on how it intends to fulfill a mandate to create a second district that allows black voters to elect a representative of their choice, one who may very well be a Democrat.
The effects of the revised map, which must be approved by Friday and approved by a federal court, could reverberate across the country, with other Southern states facing similar voting rights challenges and Republicans trying to maintain a slim majority. like a razor in the US House of Representatives next year.
The session also comes at a pivotal moment in the debate over the constitutionality of factoring race into government decisions, as Conservatives have increasingly undermined the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other long-standing judicial protections focused on equality and race.
« The eyes of the nation are watching you, » Evan Milligan, one of several Alabama residents who had challenged the map’s legality, told lawmakers Thursday at a commission hearing in Montgomery. « If you can shut out the noise, look inward. You can look at history. You can make a mark on history that will set a standard for this country. »
Alabama has a long list of bitter controversies over enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark law born out of the civil rights movement whose key provisions were gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. The litigation forced the creation of Alabama’s 1st 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 has crammed nearly a third of the black population into that one district. . The state’s remaining six districts each elected one white Republican.
There is little disagreement that voting in Alabama is highly polarized, but state legislature lawyers have blamed the situation on politics rather than race. (The Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that a gerrymander who discriminates against one party’s voters is a political issue, not a legal one.)
« Alabama black ‘chosen candidates’ tend to lose elections in Alabama not because they are black or because they receive black support, but because they are Democrats, » the state attorneys wrote.
And with about 80 percent of black voters in Alabama identifying as Democrats or leaning towards 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 on political realignment in the South. « And once Republicans get control, it’s hard for them not to dominate. »
But a three-judge federal jury said unanimously the map most likely violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered its redrawing, four months before the 2022 primary election. The Supreme Court, while agreeing to consider the challenge, allowed the map to go into 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: Awarding benefits 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 electoral 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 advancing in Louisiana, while pro-voting advocates in Georgia have begun feuding with the state over whether the ruling affects similar lawsuits there.
« We’re already showing how this opinion will have knock-on effects, » said Abha Khanna, who represented some of the Alabama plaintiffs as head of the Elias Law Group’s redistricting practice. He added, « You’re sending a message to states and jurisdictions. »
The Alabama legislature now has until Friday to create another map that gets approval from a federal court and solicited public submissions. If the legislature were to fail, the map could be challenged again, leaving open the possibility that the court would draw its own map and cut the legislature out altogether.
« It is imperative that Alabama is fairly and accurately represented in Washington, » said Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, while formally summoned the legislator returns for the extraordinary session. « Our legislature knows our state better than the federal courts. »
But it leaves Republicans with a job 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 a disaster, citing « the presumption that one of their seats will eventually become a majority-black Montgomery and Mobile seat that comfortably elects a Democrat ».
Several black Republicans spoke at the committee hearing Thursday, including Belinda Thomas, a Dale County councilwoman and GOP official who later described herself as « living proof » that the current map made the success of black candidates. Some residents and officials have also expressed concern about the diminishing representation of rural communities and economic opportunity in some of the proposed maps.
Democrats have appeared divided over which plan to support, with some lawmakers backing one that relies on a combination of traditionally Democratic voting blocs to create a new district in order to avoid drawing on racial lines. At least one of the plaintiffs wore a T-shirt emblazoned with their favorite mapwhich would encompass the 18 counties of Alabama’s Black Belt, the historically rich tract of land that fed slave-worked cotton plantations, into two districts with at least 50 percent of the voting population black.
« I want my community and I to sit at the table, rather than be on the menu, » said Shalela Dowdy, a Mobile resident and one of the plaintiffs.
But notably absent from Thursday’s public discussion was any plan supported by the Republican majority. State Rep. Chris Pringle, a Republican from Mobile, said a final map would be shared Monday before a committee meeting, even as Democrats objected to being barred from the process and the public having little time to review a final plan.
« This is a really tortured process, » said State Representative Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa. He added that « everyone else submitted maps they think best represent the state of Alabama, giving everyone an opportunity to be represented, but the vast majority didn’t. »
Mr Pringle said the committee charged with overseeing the creation of the new map has been overwhelmed with a raft of proposals, including from France and New Zealand. Just over a dozen had been made public online or in court with Mr. England sharing some other maps circulated within the committee on Twitter Friday evening.
« We were pretty much overwhelmed, » Pringle said.
Adam Liptak contributed to the reporting from Washington. Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.