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 an uphill battle to come up with an acceptable replacement by the end of this week.
A little more than a month after the court’s surprise ruling, the Alabama legislature will meet for a special five-day session on Monday, with the Republican supermajority giving little public indication of how it plans to carry out a mandate to create a second district that allows it. Black voters to elect a representative of their choice – one who might 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 states in the South facing similar voting rights challenges and Republicans seeking to hold on to a slim majority in the country. 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 increasingly draw attention to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other longstanding legal protections centered on equality and race.
“The eyes of the nation are upon 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 through the noise, look inside – you can look at history, you can make a mark in history that will set a standard for this country.”
Alabama has a long list of bitter disputes over the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark law born of the civil rights movement whose key provisions were gutted by a Supreme Court decision in 2013. A lawsuit forced the creation of the first majority-black congressional district of Alabama in 1992, and the seat has been represented by a Black Democrat ever since.
But the current battle stems from lawsuits filed to challenge the map drawn after the 2020 census. In a state where 27 percent of the population is Black, the Republican-controlled legislature packed nearly a third of the Black population into that one district. The remaining six districts of the state each elected a white Republican.
There is little disagreement that voting in Alabama is highly polarized, but attorneys for the state legislature have attributed the situation to politics rather than race. (The Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that gender discrimination that discriminates against one party’s voters is a political problem, not a legal one.)
“Black Alabamian ‘electable 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 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 Republicans get control, it’s just hard for them not to be in control.”
But a federal panel of three judges unanimously said the map most likely violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered it redrawn, four months before the 2022 primaries. The Supreme Court, agreeing to consider the challenge, allowed the map to go into effect before the November elections.
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 allowances 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 main remaining section of the law, 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 talks with the state about whether the ruling affects similar lawsuits there.
“We’re already showing how this opinion will have ripple effects,” said Abha Khanna, who represented some of the Alabama plaintiffs as the head of the Elias Law Group’s redistricting practice. She added, “You’re sending a message to states and jurisdictions.”
The Alabama legislature now has until Friday to create another map that obtains approval from a federal court, and asked for public proposals. If the legislature was short-lived, the map could again be challenged, leaving open the possibility that the court would draw its own map and cut out the legislature altogether.
“It is important that Alabama be fairly and accurately represented in Washington,” said Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, as she formally summoned the parliament back for the special session. “Our legislature knows our state better than the federal courts.”
But it leaves Republicans with a task that could jeopardize the electoral security of one of their own in Congress. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report now marks the once solidly Republican First and Second Congressional Districts as a tossup, citing “the assumption that one of their seats will eventually become a Black-majority Montgomery and Mobile-based seat that comfortably elects a Democrat.”
On Thursday, several Black Republicans spoke during the committee hearing, including Belinda Thomas, a Dale County councilwoman and Republican Party official, who later described herself as “living proof” that the current map made it possible for Black candidates to succeed. Some residents and officials also expressed concerns about diminishing the representation of rural communities and economic opportunity under some of the proposed maps.
Democrats appeared divided on which plan to support, with some lawmakers supporting one that relies on a combination of traditionally Democratic voting blocs to create a new district to avoid drawing on racial lines. At least one of the accusers wore a T-shirt emblazoned with their preferred mapwhich would enshrine the 18 counties of Alabama’s Black Belt, the stretch of historically rich soil that encouraged cotton plantations worked by slave labor, into two counties with at least 50 percent of the Black voting population.
“I want me and my community to have a seat at the table, rather than being on the menu,” said Shalela Dowdy, a Mobile resident and one of the plaintiffs.
But notably absent from the public discussion Thursday was any plan supported by the Republican supermajority. State Representative Chris Pringle, Republican of Mobile, said a final map would be shared before a committee meeting Monday, though Democrats refused to be left out of the process and that the public would be given 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 the maps that they think best represent the state of Alabama, give everyone a chance to be represented, but the vast majority did not.”
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 afield as France and New Zealand. A little more than a dozen were published online or in a hearing, with Mr. England sharing some more maps circulated among the committee on Twitter on friday evening
“We were pretty overwhelmed,” Mr Pringle said.
Adam Liptak contributed reporting from Washington. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.