Redistricting Process Starts in the Legislature with Contentious First Meeting

A legislative panel met May 5, 2021, to begon work on new district maps for federal and state elections in Alabama. Source: Todd Stacy, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY — A lack of data and a lot of personalities appear to be specific challenges for the group of lawmakers tasked with redrawing the district maps that will be used in state and federal elections in Alabama for the next 10 years.

The Alabama Legislature’s Joint Reapportionment Committee on Tuesday met for the first time in this round of post-Census redistricting to discuss a framework for how the process will play out. The panel is charged with developing new maps for Alabama’s seven congressional districts, eight state school board seats, 35 state Senate seats and 105 seats in the state House of Representatives.

Actual maps are a long way off, however, as the U.S. Census Bureau won’t have the district-level data ready until August, committee leaders said.

“Our final data won’t come until September, but we should have working numbers on Aug. 16,” said Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, who co-chairs the committee. “After that, we’ll have six to eight weeks to draw these plans.”

Pringle and fellow co-chair Sen. Jim McClendon said their goal is to draw districts that are equitable and can withstand a court challenge.

In 2016, after a lawsuit brought by the Legislative Black Caucus, a federal court ruled that 12 of Alabama’s 35 Senate districts diluted the voting power of the African Americans by packing them into districts. Lawmakers were forced to redraw the maps again in 2017.

“We are in such a compressed timeline now that we’d like to get the plan done as soon as possible,” Pringle said. “But I told the speaker that our goal is to draw the most constitutionally-sound, legally defensible plan we can arrive at.”

About five minutes into the meeting, it became clear that process could be a contentious one between Republicans and Democrats on the committee.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, objected to not being properly informed of the meeting and to committee leaders presenting recommendations without prior input from other members.

“These meetings ought to be known to members of the committee,” Smitherman said. “Everything this committee does — everything — ought to be known … these recommendations, how many of us had the chance to put in recommendations to be considered?”

One key purpose of the meeting was to discuss, amend and adopt guidelines for how district lines would be redrawn. Pringle said the panel’s attorney had drafted the recommended guidelines and that they were emailed to members a week ago.

“These are just recommendations. We haven’t decided anything,” Pringle responded. “The attorney put this together and brought it to the committee; the committee is going to discuss it and decide what to do.”

Smitherman said he had not received the information prior to the meeting and asked the committee clerk to email him at his personal email address in the future.

Dorman Walker, the attorney hired by the committee for redistricting, presented his recommended guidelines for the line-drawing process. They include adhering to the “one person, one vote” standard, complying with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, avoiding drawing incumbents into the same district if possible, minimizing the number of counties in each district and keeping communities of similar interests together.

Walker explained that the recommended guidelines were based on what the state used in 2011 while taking into account court rulings and changes in federal law since then.

One significant change to the guidelines was to allow greater population deviation among districts. During the last redistricting effort, map makers endeavored to draw state legislative districts within 1% of the same population totals. This year they will allow for a 5% population difference among districts.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said that not allowing enough flexibility in populations between districts is in part what led to the successful challenge of the 2011 map in federal court.

“I appreciate you all looking at the 5% deviation. I thought 1% shot us in the foot the last time, and we tried to tell you,” Singleton said.

After about an hour of discussion and some technical amendments, the committee adopted the recommended district-drawing guidelines by a vote of 16-1. Smitherman was the lone no vote, and two other African-American members, Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, and Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston abstained.

Later, Smitherman wanted to issue a formal objection to the committee’s use of voting-age population to draw districts rather than total population. Walker told Smitherman his objection was unfounded because total population is already the standard used to draw districts. Noting and being aware of the voting age population was important when it comes to responding to federal lawsuits over districts intended to be majority black because that’s the metric that matters, Walker said.

“When we draw districts, we use total population. But for purposes of compliance with the Voting Rights Act and other federal and state laws, we can refer to voting age population… which is generally what is referred to when building a (majority black) district.”

Smitherman moved that the committee specifically exclude any use of voting-age population. That was rejected by a voice vote.

The committee briefly discussed how to go about planning a series of public hearings around the state, allowing public input on the maps that are drawn. Boone Kinard of the Alabama Community College System told the committee that the system’s 19 schools scattered around the state would gladly host such hearings free of charge.