Birmingham Board of Education

Birmingham Council Sets April 19 Hearing and Vote on New Districts Despite Disenfranchisement Concerns

Proposed Birmingham city districts (Source: City of Birmingham)

The Birmingham City Council has set an April 19 public hearing on its proposed redistricting plan, which will likely culminate in a vote despite concerns from some councilors that the timing of the redistricting’s implementation could be interpreted as voter disenfranchisement.

Municipal law requires the city to draw new district lines after each federal census, which happens every 10 years, to make sure that population is roughly balanced among the nine districts, which each elect representatives to the City Council and the school board.

Due to delays caused by COVID, the council didn’t receive the 2020 census results until earlier this year, hiring Crimcard Consulting Services to consult with councilors and draw new district boundaries. Crimcard founder Kareem Crayton presented his proposal on Feb. 14, which focuses on balancing populations and consolidating neighborhoods.

Some councilors — notably District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott, whose district will lose part of the Five Points South neighborhood to District 6 — have expressed displeasure with the new map, but even the unhappy ones appear resigned to its eventual passage.

“I’m extremely unhappy about having to lose 20% of my district, because (last year) I won with 70%, so I’m losing a lot of people that vote for me in my district,” said District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams on Tuesday. “It’s unfortunate. I feel like I’m in a really bad spot, and a lot of the projects I’ve been working on are no longer about to be in my district…. It’s uncomfortable, it’s not politically good for some of us, but it is what it is.”

But some councilors, such as Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, expressed concerns over the timing of the new map’s implementation. For the changes to be made so early in a four-year term, O’Quinn said, “would essentially nullify (voters’) participation” in the 2021 election.

“I have had a number of constituents contacting me with concerns about the implementation, specifically the timing of the implementation,” he said. “This reapportionment would move literally tens of thousands of residents — the equivalent of a whole City Council district — into a district (for which) they had no opportunity to participate in the election of the council representative or the board of education representative. To me, that is very concerning. Some would characterize it as voter disenfranchisement. Some might characterize it as a form of voter suppression.”

City law mandates that the council present a redistricting plan within six months of receiving federal census data and hold a public hearing about that plan roughly a month after that. But the law’s only hard deadline for actually implementing that plan is six months before the next scheduled election — which, in this case, are slated for August 2025. If a special election were to be called before that, it would have to take place six months after the implementation of the new district map; otherwise, it would have to be based on districts drawn after the 2010 census.

Assistant City Attorney Julie Barnard acknowledged that there was some legal ambiguity on when the redistricting would need to be implemented.

“I’ve had differences of opinion on the matter, and I’ve talked to people that I consider experts on the matter of dealing with elections and actually got different splits from their opinion,” she said, adding that she personally thought the new districting would take effect immediately after the ordinance’s passage. “That’s where my opinion is coming down, but I would defer to other experts in the matter, if there’s a question, so we could get a solid answer on it.”

O’Quinn proposed getting an opinion from the state attorney general’s office. Abbott agreed: “That’d probably be a wise idea, just to cover ourselves,” she said.

But the rest of the council appeared eager to move on with the vote. “I’d like to move toward resolving this process,” said District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods. “I don’t think we need to leave it open-ended for any extended period of time … . We need to get into a position where we know what the maps look like and then start communicating to the public what district you’re in, who your councilor is, how you communicate with them … . I think we need to have some sort of resolution to this.”

Council President Pro Tempore Crystal Smitherman took issue with O’Quinn’s use of the term “voter suppression,” saying that the issue is far removed from actual issues of voting access.

“The crazy thing is, this map makes the districts more diverse,” she said. “If you look at this map, the black neighborhoods in (districts) eight, nine, six and seven and part of four are the ones who need more population. Those are the real effects right here. … It’s just crazy to me, this whole process, because our consultant is probably one of the most qualified in all of the freaking country … . How long do we have to keep explaining these maps (to) people who just don’t want to understand what’s going on?”

O’Quinn re-emphasized that his issue was purely with the timing of the changes. “If you’re nullifying someone’s vote, in my opinion that’s equivalent to voter disenfranchisement. It makes them discouraged to come out and vote the next time. That’s in my opinion a form of voter suppression,” he said. “I think we need to be very careful about these things. This is not about any individual or any project or even how the redistricting has been determined. This is about democracy and fundamentals. And I think we need to be very careful about how we proceed.”

The council voted immediately after to set an April 19 date for a public hearing on the redistricting, which will likely conclude with a council vote on the new district map. Abbott was the sole dissenting vote; O’Quinn voted in favor.
“I voted yes because the item is really for a public hearing with the possibility that the council could vote on the ordinance,” he told BirminghamWatch Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t have any objection to discussion. My concern is based strictly (on) the immediate implementation that would nullify participation in the 2021 election for all or part of several neighborhoods.”