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Electoral Ambush: In Alabama, a fraught redistricting process

On Oct. 28, the Alabama Legislature officially began its special session on redistricting. The redistricting, or reapportionment, process occurs every 10 years after U.S. census data is released, determining what our federal and state maps will look like and in which districts we live.

With the 2020 census being the first opportunity for redistricting since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), many voting rights activists and organizers warned about some of the devious tactics we might see and, unfortunately, those predictions proved true.

To fully appreciate what has occurred, it is important to remember how we got here. Just 10 days after the horrific events of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the VRA was introduced in Congress to prevent state legislatures from intentionally or unintentionally diminishing a protected class of minority citizens’ ability to elect the candidate of their choice. Historically, this was done through tactics such as stacking, packing and cracking, which we referenced in our last Alabama post. These strategies often lead to diluting the voices of people of color and the separation of groups of people with similar concerns and experiences, known as communities of interest.

Despite this legacy of systemic voter disenfranchisement, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that many of the protections which safeguarded the democratic process for over 50 years were no longer necessary and would not be enforced. The main protection that was stripped was Section 5 of the VRA – preclearance. This required certain states to submit their plans to the Department of Justice for approval before the maps could take effect.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR 4), which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in August, would remedy these shortcomings in our electoral process. HR 4 would have restored Section 5 of the VRA by requiring states with a history of persistent voting discrimination, like Alabama, to obtain preclearance with the Department of Justice. Unfortunately, the bill was blocked in the Senate by a procedural vote on Nov. 3 before it could even be brought to the floor for debate.

That obstruction in Washington, D.C., set the stage for what unfolded in Alabama.

On Oct. 26, the Alabama Joint Legislative Reapportionment Committee met to review the newly drawn maps for Congress, state House, state Senate, and state board of education, and approve them for further consideration by the state House and Senate. None of these maps were available to the public for consideration, or even most legislators for more than a few hours before the committee’s meeting.

Ambushed by the introduction of four new maps, comprising 155 unique districts and thousands of voting precincts in total, the Democratic members of the redistricting committee asked the Republican sponsors of the map plan about the data used to draw the districts and who actually created the maps. Those members were repeatedly told, inexplicably, that there would be an opportunity to debate the plans after they voted the maps out of committee. However, given the Republican supermajority in the Legislature, the maps that emerged out of committee were, save for a handful of precinct changes in the Mobile area, the maps that were approved by Gov. Kay Ivey on Nov. 4.

The entire process was unnecessarily hurried and fraught with problems that easily could have been solved if the supermajority had done their due diligence and taken to heart the community concerns voiced by their Democratic colleagues.

Redistricting committee members asked for an analysis of the racial polarization of each district created. Those requests were denied. Requests were made by representatives to look at alternate maps created to prevent the communities of color in those areas from being split up and pulled into districts with legislators from neighboring, predominantly rural counties. Those requests were denied.

And finally, a bipartisan complaint was made by the Madison County delegation that there should be additional districts drawn representing the area to reflect a decade of rapid growth evidenced by census data. That request, too, was denied.

Setting aside that the state is already facing lawsuits over redistricting, what was most disturbing about the process was the continued suppression of so many voices across Alabama. Again, one of the central tenets of democracy is that we, the voters, should choose our representatives, not the other way around. One Democratic senator observed that when some state legislative districts are drawn to sprawl across multiple counties and pick off Black voters in the nearest city, voters can’t possibly expect their representatives to ever have common interests.

When our legislators get to pick and choose whom they want in their districts, they also get to cherry pick what issues they will focus on during the regular legislative session. And with voting rights, overcrowded prisons, criminal justice reform, and students’ rights and inclusive education on the agenda, we simply cannot afford to have legislators turn a blind eye to – or worse, exacerbate – the problems we face here.

Continue to stay educated and engaged, and help us make Alabama a better state for all who call it home.

Jerome Dees is Alabama policy director for the SPLC Action Fund.

Photo above: The Alabama State House (Credit: WikiCommons)