Just after the 2010 election, Republican lawmakers, who had just gained complete political power in Montgomery for the first time in over a century, seized a unique opportunity: to redraw the state’s legislative districts. The 2010 census meant that in light of Alabama’s shifting demographics and growing population, changes had to be made, and Goat Hill’s newly anointed were quick on the draw, setting up a State House committee and tasking it with drawing new political boundaries for the 35 Senate and 105 House districts.
In the 2012 election, the districts that committee eventually approved were used for the first time. Until this day, though — half a decade, a U.S. Supreme Court decision and a handful of election cycles later — it’s still unclear whether or not those districts are constitutional, and whether in seizing that political opportunity in 2010 Republican lawmakers colored far outside the legal lines.
Whether or not the current electoral map is unconstitutional — and the consensus in the courts is that at least some of its districts are out of legal bounds — hinges on whether legislators diluted minority voting power by “packing” black Alabamians into the same few districts. Ironically, historically Alabama’s white political elite used the opposite tactic to undermine minority power at the voting booth. In the past, splitting minority communities and placing those smaller sections into larger, majority white districts was the strategy: a move that resulted in little minority voting power in any single district.
Now, according to black lawmakers and others challenging the 2010 maps, the tactic has changed. Instead of spreading minority voters out in order to dilute them, they argue, minority communities have been “stacked and packed” into as few districts as possible, giving black voters unnecessarily large voting power in places where they were already able to elect their candidates of choice. This effort to pack black voters into a very few districts is perhaps illustrated best (or worst) in Senate District 26, represented by Senate Minority Leader Quinton Ross.
“Alabama’s Senate District 26 presents a useful illustration of this logic,” a 2015 Harvard Law Review article points out. “Although the state needed to add approximately 16,000 individuals to the district to equalize district populations, the requirement of ‘one person, one vote’ did not mandate the Legislature’s decision to add 14,806 blacks and 36 whites to a district that was already 72.75 percent black. The majority hinted that it could not locate a race-neutral principle to explain why the Legislature chose this lopsided ratio. More broadly, although the pool of people located outside of majority-black districts was only about 17 percent black, the proportion of individuals added to the already majority-black districts was 64 percent black. The Legislature rejected several options that would have satisfied equal-population goals without concentrating blacks to such an extent.”
And that was the point members of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference, the two political entities challenging the maps, made in court, first to a three-judge district court, which ruled against them, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in their favor, 5-4. In that latter case, the federal court said the Alabama court had made several grievous errors in law, and that it appeared districts like Ross’ are indeed unconstitutional.
“Had the District Court not taken a contrary view of the law, its … conclusions … might well have been different,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court. “There is strong, perhaps overwhelming, evidence that race did predominate as a factor when the Legislature drew the boundaries of Senate District 26, the one district that the parties have discussed here in depth.”
And indeed, as District Court Judge Myron Thompson, who dissented in the lower court case, pointed out, Senate District 26 wasn’t the only place where the state used what was called unneeded “racial quotas” to fill underpopulated districts, instead of looking at permissible factors like party affiliation.
“For example, it is clear that one factor and one factor alone explains the fact that SD 26 is over 75 percent black: race,” Thompson wrote in his dissenting opinion, which was later vindicated by Breyer’s Supreme Court opinion. “Nothing else explains that percentage. And the same is true for SD 24. One factor and one factor alone explains the fact that SD 24, with a quota of 62.8 percent black, is 63.3 percent black: race. And the same is true for SD 23. One factor and one factor alone explains the fact that SD 23, with a quota of 64.79 percent black, is 64.81 percent black: race.”
Thompson continued: “Also, the same is true for majority-black House Districts. One factor and one factor alone explains the fact that HD 55, with a quota of 73.54 percent black, is 73.6 percent black: race. One factor and one factor alone explains the fact that HD 67, with a quota of 69.14 percent black, is 69.2 percent black: race. One factor and one factor alone explains the fact that HD 57, with a quota of 68.49 percent black, is 68.5 percent black: race.”
That focus on race — particularly at a time when Alabama has gone to great lengths to distance itself from such discussions — seems politically expedient at best, and racist at worst. And sadly, despite what the Harvard Law Review called the Supreme Court’s “definitive rejection of Alabama’s flawed rationale” regarding our electoral maps, a conclusion to this legal and electoral fiasco has yet to be reached. To this day, the Alabama court whose opinion was soundly rejected by the Supreme Court hasn’t issued its final decision on the matter, and until then, our electoral map is still up in the air.
And it may just be a waiting game: Bill Pryor, who wrote the lower court opinion roundly criticized by the Supreme Court, is on Trump’s list of potential picks to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, giving the Alabamian a potential opportunity to argue — this time as a member of the highest court in the land — that he was right all along.
UPDATE: Since press time, the three-judge federal court in Alabama, which includes Bill Pryor, has ruled that 12 of the challenged districts are unconstitutional and cannot be used in future elections. This means that Alabama must redraw those districts, and likely those around them, before the next election cycle.