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Five Questions About Gerrymandering With Alabama Representative Chris England
Chris England is a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, serving the Tuscaloosa area. He is the former chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, and was the first Black chairman of either major political party in Alabama. He is a graduate of Howard University and the University of Alabama School of Law and comes from a family that is distinguished by its public service. His father served as a state Supreme Court Justice and circuit judge. His brother is a federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of Alabama.
There is no one better to help us untangle and understand the complicated hearing that will take place this week in a Birmingham courtroom to determine the map that will be used when Alabama voters elect members to the House of Representatives in 2024. If you want a refresher, we took a look at the Supreme Court’s surprise decision last term, telling Alabama its maps violated the Voting Rights Act here, and the Alabama Legislature’s refusal to comply with that decision here. It would be bad enough if it was just Alabama, but the decisions made here will impact other states and what they are permitted to do.
Chris, what exactly is going on in federal court this week, and who are the players?
Alabama will be back in federal court Monday, August 14, 2023. The plaintiffs, which include Evan Milligan, Shalela Dowdy, Letetia Jackson, Khadidah Stone, Adia Winfrey, Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, are primarily represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus and District Judges Anna M. Manasco and Terry F. Moorer will hear arguments to determine whether or not the state’s remedial map, created and passed during a recent special session, satisfies the District Court’s order to draft a remedial map “which includes two districts in which Black voters either compromise a voting age majority or something quite close to it.” Alabama was ordered to produce a new congressional map after the three-judge panel determined that the previous map likely violated the Voting Rights Act because Alabama’s Black population was large enough and geographically compact enough to form a reasonably drawn second majority Black district and that voting in Alabama is racially polarized.
The Supreme Court issued a stay of the three-judge panel’s decision ahead of the 2022 election, which allowed the state to use the illegal map for the 2022 election cycle. In October of 2022, the Court heard oral arguments from the parties. In June of 2023, the Supreme Court affirmed the three-judge panel’s decision that Alabama congressional map likely violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and sent the case back to the panel. The three-judge panel gave Alabama until July 21st to come up with an appropriate remedy. The Alabama Legislature went into a special session, drafted a map and sent it back to the court.
2. Help us understand what the Alabama Legislature did when it had the opportunity to draw new maps that complied with the Supreme Court’s order that necessitated this hearing.
When given the opportunity to draw new congressional map, instead of complying with the Court’s order to draw a remedial map that “includes two districts in which Black voters either compromise a voting age majority or something quite close to it,” Republicans used the special session as an opportunity to double down on arguments that both the three-judge panel and the Supreme Court rejected in previous oral arguments. Recent public comments by prominent Republicans, including Attorney General Steve Marshall, suggest that the strategy was in fact to defy the Court’s order and force this case back to the Supreme Court in an effort to maintain the congressional Republicans’ slim majority and ultimately re-litigate the case to try and further erode or effectively eliminate the Voting Rights Act.
The congressional map created two districts that the Republicans argue create an opportunity for Black Alabamians to elect a candidate of their choosing. Those districts are the 2nd and 7th Congressional Districts in their proposed remedial map. The 7th Congressional District has a BVAP of 51%, which is down from the previous map’s Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) of 55%. The new 2nd Congressional District increases the BVAP from 30% to 39%. While the BVAP has increased, it still falls far short of the three-judge panel’s instruction to create a majority minority district or something quite close to it.
Moreover, functional data demonstrates that the newly created 2nd Congressional District in the state’s proposed remedial map does not actually create an opportunity for Black Alabamians to elect a candidate of their choosing. Recent election results in the new District 2 show that Black-preferred candidates, or Democrats, would have little or no chance. In 16 of 17 statewide races since 2016, Democrats received fewer votes in the new District 2 than Republicans, with the outlier being Doug Jones’s win over Roy Moore in the 2017 special election for the U.S. Senate. In all 11 statewide races pitting Black candidates against white candidates since 2014, the Black candidate received fewer votes in the new District 2, an average of 42%.
The special session was not transparent, and public input was essentially ignored. The final version of the proposed remedial map was created on Thursday and passed on Friday, the last two days of the special session. The redistricting guidelines were also created and passed at the same time as the remedial map, which effectively eliminated every other proposed map from consideration. Many members of the Legislature voted on redistricting guidelines and a new congressional map that they had only seen a few minutes before they were required to vote on them.
3. What issues does the court have to decide at the end of this hearing?
The court will have to determine whether or not the Legislature’s proposed remedial map is “the appropriate remedy that includes either an additional majority-Black congressional district, or an additional district in which Black voters otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.” More specifically, the three-judge panel wrote that “the Legislature enjoys broad discretion and may consider a wide range of remedial plans. As the Legislature considers such plans, it should be mindful of the practical reality, based on the ample evidence of intensely racially polarized voting adduced during the preliminary injunction proceedings, that any remedial plan will need to include two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”
4. What do you think will happen next?
Based on recent public comments and also based on the fact that the proposed remedial map appears to fall short of the Court’s order, I believe that a court-appointed special master will eventually draw the state’s new congressional map. Alabama Republicans have indicated that they are willing to take this case back to the Supreme Court using the same arguments that the Supreme Court has previously rejected. Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter specifically mentioned giving Justice Kavanaugh another opportunity to look at the evidence in the case and hopefully change his mind. It appears that their main goal is to not only to finish off the Voting Rights Act, but also, at the very least, to delay this case long enough to force the state to use the current illegal map for another election cycle. Their main goal here is to maintain the Republicans’ slim majority in the House. It doesn’t matter to them how that happens, even if it means defying the Court’s order and disenfranchising Black Alabamians in the process.
5. Do you ever want to give up in the face of people who believe they can only win by taking away other people’s right to vote, and who seem, in some cases, to be succeeding? You’ve been the voice of accurate information and perseverance in this and other political battles in Alabama. What advice can you give readers about staying the course and continuing to advocate for democracy?
Alabamians should be disappointed. We should be disgusted. However, we should neither be surprised nor discouraged. Given Alabama’s history of blatantly disregarding and defying Federal Court orders, especially when it comes to further marginalizing Black Alabamians, the state’s action here should be somewhat expected. Throughout Alabama’s tortured and terrible Civil Rights history, whenever the Court orders us to do something we don’t like, we retreat back to Alabama’s motto which is “We dare defend our rights.” Unfortunately, though, it is clear that the “our” in that quote sometimes doesn’t include all Alabamians.
However, in the face of this sort of adversity, we should all be motivated to push back harder. Power never concedes anything without a demand. Civic engagement, holding our elected officials accountable, and voting, at a bare minimum, are ways we demand action and representation on our behalf. It will be hard at times. However, Democracy requires active participation in order for it to be an effective and fair form of government. If we want Alabama to stop being the place where the dead continue to bury the living, we must continue to fight back.
Chris’s eloquent words hold true no matter what state you reside in. Democracy requires active participation by every American. We know too well that, especially when it comes to guaranteeing civil rights, “power never concedes anything without a demand.” We live in an era where it’s our job to make those demands.
We’re in this together,