By: Shelly Vallone
The Alabama Senate gave final approval for a redistricting plan of Alabama’s congressional districts on November 3, 2021 after Governor Kay Ivey commenced a special reapportionment session on October 28, 2021 to complete the mandatory redrawing of Congressional, State House of Representatives, State Senate, and State Board of Education districts after the 2020 Census. The Senate mostly maintained the status quo, notably preserving the state’s only majority-black Congressional district without adding another. Ahead of the plan’s approval, Alabama state Senators Rodger Smitherman and Bobby Singleton, along with four Alabama voters, filed suit on September 27, 2021, in the United States District Court Northern District of Alabama Southern Division, asking the Court to declare the current districting plan unconstitutional and allow the legislature to remedy the violations ahead of the 2022 elections.
In their amended complaint, filed the day after the Senate’s approval, the plaintiffs argue the plan “was drafted by incumbent members of Alabama’s Congressional delegation to maintain their current districts with only those changes necessary to equalize populations.” The plaintiffs also stress the urgency of their claim in light of the fast-approaching 2022 elections. Candidates seeking nomination in a party primary must file a declaration of candidacy with the state party chairman by January 28, 2022. Therefore, the plaintiffs asked the Court to conduct a final hearing before the end of 2021 to settle whether the plan constitutes a racial gerrymander before the primary elections in May 2022.
The plaintiffs argue that the Legislature has failed to remedy, and further perpetuated, unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in the state’s congressional map because both the existing and future plans pack black voters into one majority-black Congressional district: District 7. Because black voters are packed into District 7, the plaintiffs contend that the influence of black voters is minimized state-wide. The plaintiffs have drawn and submitted an alternative plan to the Court based on the 2020 Census data that would disperse District 7, instead creating two districts in which black voters would make up 40% of the population. According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, the two new districts would rely on white crossover voting in order to give black voters an opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice. Under the current plan, District 7 connects the more densely populated regions of Jefferson and Montgomery counties with more rural western counties of the state. District 7 was created in 1992 by a federal court, which aimed to give black voters the ability to elect a candidate of their choice and achieve districts with “perfect equality” of population. District 7 had a population of sixty-four percent black residents based on the 2010 census compared to the other six districts ranging from seven to twenty-nine percent.
Citing Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, the plaintiffs argue that the state cannot subordinate traditional redistricting principles in favor of racial considerations in the drawing of its districts. The plaintiffs rely on Alabama’s history of drawing Congressional districts with whole counties to assert that preserving whole county boundaries in Congressional district plans is the most important traditional districting principle the state should consider. The plaintiffs’ proposed plan removes county splits and maintains whole county boundaries. The plaintiffs acknowledge that the Supreme Court held in Rucho v. Common Cause that nonpartisan gerrymandering claims are nonjusticiable in federal court, but that the Court may address one-person, one-vote and racial gerrymandering claims.
Lawyers for the state requested that the Court dismiss the case, arguing that the issue is moot because the legislature has already begun the redistricting process, but the Court denied the motion. In the Motion to Dismiss, Secretary Merrill asserted that the plaintiffs sued to “beat the legislature to the finish line,” despite there being no need for federal court intervention. In an Order on November 9, 2021, the Court acknowledged the need for a timely resolution, and laid out a detailed plan for the case to proceed, and a hearing was set and heard for the plaintiffs’ application for preliminary injunctive relief on January 4, 2022.