A Fix for Racial Gerrymandering? Legislators to Debate Whether New Plan Cures Voting District Problems

Dorman Walker, lawyer for the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment, discusses plans with the committee and audience members in a meeting April 26, 2017.

Legislators on Tuesday will begin debating a committee’s plans for redrawing House and Senate districts a federal court ruled had been racially gerrymandered.

With only a handful of days left before the regular session must end, the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment last week approved a redistricting plan.

It now goes for debate in House and Senate committees and in the full chambers. Members of the reapportionment committee hope to report progress on redistricting to a federal court on May 25.

But Democratic members of the committee were not satisfied with changes made to the state’s districting maps and thought the committee had not changed lines enough.

Jefferson County is one of the key sticking points. Several districts cross into Jefferson County although the bulk of the population is in another county. The inclusion of those legislators on the Jefferson County delegations creates Republican majorities.

Democratic leaders had wanted district lines redrawn to respect county lines, thereby balancing power evenly between Democrats and Republicans on the delegations. The plan approved by the reapportionment committee did not accomplish that.


Packed Minority Districts

Every 10 years, the Legislature redraws districts after the Census is taken to reflect shifting population patterns. In 2012, the Alabama Senate and House maps were redrawn in preparation for the 2014 election.

The Alabama Democratic Conference, Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, Alabama Association of Black County Officials and others sued, alleging that race had played too large a role in redistricting 35 majority black districts. They contended black voters had been packed into several overwhelmingly black districts, limiting their political power.

The next year, a three-judge federal court panel ruled in favor of the state. As a result, the number of majority black districts did not change in the 2014 election, maintaining eight in the Senate and 27 in the House.

But in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the three-judge panel’s ruling. The district court reviewed the suit again, this time ruling that 12 of the 36 disputed districts were, in fact, unconstitutional. The districts were Senate Districts 20, 26 and 28; and House Districts 32, 53, 54, 70, 71, 77, 82, 85 and 99.

U.S. District Senior Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote a separate opinion arguing that an additional 12 districts also were unconstitutional.

Complicating the process is another U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in a Virginia redistricting suit.

During a meeting last week, Dorman Walker, lawyer for the committee, reviewed the guidelines for redrawing districts. He said that, to comply with the Voting Rights Act, districts may not be drawn primarily based on race. But he said that in 2012, legislators believed that the best way to satisfy the Voting Rights Act was, in fact, to begin by drawing majority black districts and then going from there.


Crossing County Lines

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, proposed the committee amend its guidelines to include the Supreme Court’s injunction that county lines be considered just as important as race in redistricting. His motion was tabled in a party-line vote.

The Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment met to discuss districts April 26, 2017.

Rep. Thad McClammy, D-Montgomery, said that the committee’s guidelines already stipulated that the number of counties in each district should be minimized, but that is not what the committee did in its proposal.

Committee Chairman Gerald Dial, the Republican senator from Lineville, pointed out that the committee had started out with one set of rules, then had to deal with another after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Virginia case.

He said committee members tried to stitch precincts back together and limit districts that cross county lines as much as possible. The committee could have tackled just the three Senate seats and nine House seats ruled unconstitutional, Dial said, but the court would have sent it back to them if they didn’t address other districts affected by their changes.

He estimated that the committee’s plans may affect 25 of the 35 Senate districts and 66 of the 105 House districts.

“Is everybody happy? No,” Dial said. “The good Lord walked on the earth and he couldn’t make everyone happy, so don’t think I can.”

Jefferson County minority members are certainly not happy. While Senate Districts 16, 18, 19 and 20 are squarely within Jefferson County, Districts 5, 14, 15 and 17 cross over county lines, resulting in a five-three Republican majority in the Senate. By removing the small section of District 14 that crosses the county line, the committee’s proposal would bring the number down to a four-three Republican majority.

“The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were wanting to narrow the district breakdown in Jefferson County from the current 5-3 ratio to something closer to parity,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. “By moving me out of Jefferson County, there will be a 4-3 GOP majority. The committee had to make some changes, and I think they acted fair in their decisions.”

Smitherman disagreed.

“The plan for Jefferson County is completely unacceptable at this time,” he said. Smitherman contended the map easily could be redrawn for an even three-three split by removing the section of Senate District 5 that crosses the line in the western area.

Dial said he did not want to do that because it would mean redrawing the lines for several northwestern districts.

Jefferson County has a total of 18 House districts, four of which jut in from other counties: 14, 16, 43 and 45. The committee’s proposed redistricting map makes no changes to those districts.

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, said she understands the challenges of redrawing district lines and that it’s not always possible to keep counties whole.

“The bigger issue,” she said, “is when the intent to dilute the will of the voters is obvious in Jefferson County – when others are drawn into the county who only represent a handful of voters or less.”


Democratic Voices

Several Democrats also said they felt they should have had more of a voice in redrawing the map since they brought the lawsuit in the first place.

“A lot of us have not had – even on this committee – have not had a lot of input on these maps that the committee just voted on as a committee,” said Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

Singleton said one or two members of the committee drew the maps with the lawyer.

“So, that’s why you’re going to find that fight,” he said, “and we’ll probably end up back in court again, because I just think it’s not fair.”

Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, agreed.

“They’re still gerrymandering districts,” he said, “so, I would assume that the courts are going to throw this out, too. And then the courts will draw the plans, or they’ll take the Black Caucus plan. You have to take into account what the Supreme Court stated about the county boundaries. And they voted that down. That’s just a direct no to the Supreme Court.”