The Alabama Legislature this morning gave final approval to redistricting plans, finishing off one of its most contentious jobs on the last day of the regular session.
The plan to rewrite the House districts now goes to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk. The redistricting plan for the Senate was approved and sent to the governor Thursday.
Legislators redrew the districts after a federal court said 12 of them were the unconstitutional results of racial gerrymandering. Democrats, angry that the redistricting plan backed by Republicans had not changed enough on the map, threatened to lock down the Legislature by asking that the bills be read at length – a task that took eight hours in the House and most of the night in the Senate.
The Senate redistricting plan proposes to redraw 25 of the 35 districts, and the House redistricting plan would redraw 70 of the 105 districts.
Jefferson County has been one of the key sticking points in the plans throughout the process. 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 plans before the Legislature did not do that, leaving Republicans with a one-vote majority in both the House and the Senate.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh told the Associated Press on Thursday that the major dispute was “all about Jefferson County and the makeup of the delegation. … I get it. But based upon what I’ve seen I do believe that these will hold up in court.”
Democrats disagreed. “It seems like we are going to end up in court again,” said Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “It’s clear. You can look at the map. There is racial gerrymandering.”
Members of the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment hope to report progress on redistricting to a federal court on May 25.
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.
Dorman Walker, lawyer for the committee, told members in a meeting 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
During one of the committee’s meetings, 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.
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.
“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.”