5 things to know about the battle over Alabama’s congressional maps
The Republican-controlled Alabama state Legislature has caused a furor after refusing to create a new congressional map to include a second majority-Black district.
The decision Friday defies a recent Supreme Court order and has sparked outrage from Democrats who argue the legislature has continued to dilute Black voting power.
“We passed a map that most of us didn’t see until about an hour before we voted on it,” state Rep. Christopher England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa, tweeted Friday. “I am convinced that passing a non-compliant map was the plan all along.”
Here’s what to know about the battle over Alabama’s congressional maps.
Supreme Court ordered maps to be redrawn
After the 2020 census, Alabama implemented a redistricting plan. Under the plan, only one of the state’s seven districts would be majority Black, despite 27 percent of the state’s residents being Black.
This map — and the lack of majority-Black districts — became the center of a lawsuit brought by a group of voters, the Alabama chapter of the NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries.
In the case, Merrill v. Milligan, the plaintiffs argued that the map illegally packed Black voters into the Black Belt, a mostly rural expanse of land across the middle of the state where nearly 60 percent of registered voters identified as Black. Other districts, the plaintiffs argued, had less than 31 percent of registered Black voters.
The plaintiffs alleged that the GOP-controlled Legislature had engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, with the goal of racially discriminating against African American voters. This, they argued, violated the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Alabama had argued the map used a race-neutral benchmark and therefore did not violate the Voting Rights Act.
But in January, a ruling by federal judges agreed with the plaintiffs and blocked the map.
“Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress,” the three-judge panel wrote in the 225-page ruling. “We find that the plaintiffs will suffer an irreparable harm if they must vote in the 2022 congressional elections based on a redistricting plan that violates federal law,” the ruling stated.
The 5-4 decision was seen as a surprise and ordered the state to create a new map with an additional majority-Black district or “something quite close to it.”
“As we explain below, we find Alabama’s new approach to [Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act] compelling neither in theory nor in practice. We accordingly decline to recast our §2 case law as Alabama requested,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
The Alabama GOP defied the order
Alabama lawmakers had until Friday to introduce a new congressional map. Last week, they introduced a map that would increase the percentage of Black voters in the 2nd Congressional District from about 30 percent to about 42.5 percent. But these numbers were still below the court’s order.
Last week’s proposal was approved by the Permanent Legislative Committee in a party-line 14-6 vote.
Then, Friday, Republicans passed a new congressional map that includes only one majority-Black district and another that is about 40-percent Black, in defiance of the country’s top court.
Gov. Kay Ivey (R) approved the map late Friday and has stood by Republicans.
“The Legislature knows our state, our people and our districts better than the federal courts or activist groups, and I am pleased that they answered the call, remained focused and produced new districts ahead of the court deadline,” Ivey said in a statement, according to WSFA.
State Republicans have defended the map, saying it does uphold the court’s order.
State Rep. Greg Reed (R), the Alabama Senate president pro tempore, said the Legislature had worked “tirelessly” to pull the map together.
“I firmly believe that the map we adopted in the House and Senate is a fair solution that positions Alabama’s congressional districts and our voters in the best way possible,” Reed said in a statement.
“While any special session of this nature comes with a lot of work and thoughtful discussions, we are here doing what we need to do to serve our great state and our people.”
The new map has political implications for Democrats
The Supreme Court’s ruling in June was seen as a huge victory not only for voting rights advocates, but also for Democrats as they look to take back the House in next year’s election.
Following the surprise decision, the nonpartisan election handicapper Cook Political Report shifted both the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts in Alabama toward Democrats — from “safe Republican” to “toss-up.”
Democrats need only to net five seats to regain control of the lower chamber. The high court’s ruling last month was seen as a sign that the party is heading into next year with the odds of doing that in their favor.
But Republicans are now being accused of trying to dilute Black voting power with their newly proposed map. Since the majority of the state’s Black residents back Democrats, this could have a negative impact on the party’s fortunes and make the seats more competitive for Republicans.
Black lawmakers are outraged
Black lawmakers at both the state and federal level blasted the Republican map Friday.
England, the Democrat from Tuscaloosa, told The Hill that last week felt like a “torture process” that ended with the new map.
“From the beginning, every map that my Republican colleagues produced and submitted to the body for consideration managed to dodge public scrutiny or input,” England said.
England said he and other Democrats had hoped Republicans “wouldn’t just openly defy a court order.”
“Instead, what we got was, I guess, Alabama business as usual, and a map that was drawn out of scrutiny [of] the public,” he said.
England said it’s hard to look at the map and other legislative acts and not believe there is a message being sent.
“Recently, Alabama attempted to pass a law that threatened incarceration to anybody that helped [or] assisted someone in an absentee ballot, and you kind of see the same spirit manifests itself in openly defying a court order to make sure that Black voters’ impact or influence on an election is minimized and marginalized,” he added.
At the federal level, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) said in a statement Friday that the new map does not comply with the Supreme Court’s order and instead the state had “shamelessly chosen to ignore” the court.
“This map does not comply with the Supreme Court’s order and is an insult to Black voters across our state,” Sewell said. “I fully expect that it will be rejected by the courts.”
The Alabama House Democratic Caucus accused the Republican majority of prioritizing political ambition.
“The court ruled that our Black population is large enough and geographically compact enough to create a second district,” the caucus said in a statement. “And yet, the majority pushed through a map that blatantly fails to meet that standard. Remember, we were handed a common-sense solution.”
“Alabama has a long and tragic history of trampling on the voting rights of people of color,” it added. “Sadly, that tradition is alive and well today. We hope and expect that the federal district court will reject this map in favor of one that satisfies the Voter Rights Act and upholds the voting rights of Black voters and all voters in Alabama.”
The legal fight is likely to continue
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s (R) office said plaintiffs that want to object to the newly approved map have until July 28 to file their objections with the federal district court in Birmingham. His office will then file a response a week later.
A hearing will happen Aug. 14. The court can choose to implement maps drawn by outside experts if it agrees that the map is still racially gerrymandered.
England is urging Alabamians to continue registering to vote regardless of the map.
“Obviously, there must be some power associated with the vote if there are so many orchestrated, directed actions that are taking it away,” England said. “But at the end of the day, in this specific situation … we are fussing and fighting, but we’re hoping that the court saves Alabama from itself and makes us do the right thing.”