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The Alabama Legislature dances back into federal court

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The Alabama Legislature dances back into federal court

Jul 24, 2023 | 7:59 am ET
By Brian Lyman
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The Alabama Legislature dances back into federal court
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Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, speaks to Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile during a special session on redistricting on Friday, July 21, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

A few weeks ago, my wife and I learned to dance the foxtrot. 

That’s a century-old step that (as taught to us) is pretty basic. Take your partner’s hand and put your other hand on your partner’s waist. 

If you’re the lead, take two steps forward. If you’re not, take two steps back. Step to the side and bring your feet together. Repeat until the music stops. 

Julie was very patient as I mouthed the instructor’s directions. Forward. Forward. Together. Forward. Forward. Together. 

I thought a lot about that lesson last week as I watched the Alabama Legislature struggle to approve new congressional maps and argue about addressing Voting Rights Act violations in the state’s 2021 congressional map. Mostly because I’d rather be dancing with my wife. 

But redistricting in Alabama has its own choreography. 

The majority party draws the maps. The minority party complains. The majority party approves the maps. Lawsuits follow. 

The same steps, decade after decade. Just like the foxtrot. 

But last week, it wasn’t clear which party was leading, and which was following. 

There was never any doubt that the GOP supermajorities in the Legislature would get their plans through. Those maps create one majority-Black district in west Alabama and a Wiregrass-centered district with a Black population of 40%. Republican leaders – the rank-and-file mostly stayed quiet – argued the districts would give Black voters an “opportunity” to elect leaders.

Democrats were dubious. The Wiregrass is as friendly to Democrats as Auburn is to the Crimson Tide.

Yet the minority party, which usually can do little but vent frustrations in quickly-clotured debates, took a cooler and more dismissive attitude toward the Republican proposals last week. 

It wasn’t that they liked the Republican proposals – the phrase “dropped the F-bomb on the United States Supreme Court” came up — but they also seemed skeptical that the GOP maps would become law. 

“We’re saying, ‘Supreme Court, I know you told me to do something, but I refused to do so,’” Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville, said during the House debate on Wednesday. “This map just says ‘Hey, we don’t want to do what you want us to do.’ That’s the history of the state of Alabama.’”

If you know the baselines the federal court set for Alabama’s congressional maps, it was hard to understand the Republicans’ strategy. 

Testing the court

The three-judge panel that struck down the state’s 2021 congressional maps 18 months ago wrote that the remedy was “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.”

Republicans, particularly Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, the co-chair of the reapportionment committee, zeroed in on the “opportunity” language. No plan introduced by Republicans included two majority-Black districts. Instead, the GOP maps created a new 7th Congressional District in the western Black Belt with a bare majority of Black voters (it ended up at 50.65%) and a new 2nd Congressional District in southeast Alabama with a Black population that ranged from 38% to 42%. 

Pringle and other Republicans argued that a district that wasn’t majority-Black would still give Black voters an “opportunity” to elect leaders of their choice. 

“I will tell you that I will proudly present this map to the court because I think this bill complies with the state’s VRA obligations,” Pringle said Wednesday. “I’ve proven in the past I will follow the Voting Rights Act.”

The problem for Republicans is that the opinion doesn’t stop at the “opportunity” language. That’s on Page 5. The remedy language continues on to Page 6 (of a 225-page opinion). 

“As the Legislature considers such plans, it should be mindful of the practical reality … 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,” the judges wrote. 

The percentage of Black voters in the proposed 2nd Congressional District doesn’t seem “quite close” to a majority. A Brennan Center analysis of federal and state elections going back to 2016 in the proposed district found that Democrats would only have won one of 15 races (the 2017 special election for U.S. Senate).  

It’s just not a district Democrats can expect to win consistently. And that’s a point Democrats will make at a federal court hearing on the maps, set for next month

So why did Republicans go with that map? Legislators and the Alabama attorney general’s office seem ready to test the limits of the court’s ruling.

“If you think about where we were, the Supreme Court ruling was 5-4,” House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said on Friday. “So there’s just one judge needed to see something different. And I think the movement that we have and what we’ve come to compromise today is a good shot.”

But the state’s record with the federal judges and redistricting plans doesn’t inspire confidence. 

So why not draw a map with a district that’s, say, 45% or 46% Black? That’s conceivably winnable for Republicans. 

Democrats accused Republicans throughout the week of wanting to punt the whole issue back to the federal courts. I don’t think that’s a deliberate choice – Republicans were trying to get the best result in the circumstances – but there may be something to it. 

If you were a Republican facing an order to effectively hand a congressional district to the opposing party, in an environment where a shift of five seats could cost the GOP the U.S. House, would you want to draw that map? Party activists would want your head. 

But if a court does it for you? Not only can you wash your hands of the map, but you can also condemn the judges, too. If a second majority-Black district is inevitable, that’s the best bad result for the GOP. 

It’s a new step in this decades-old dance. Still, the overall pattern hasn’t changed. Democrats and Republicans will keep dancing as the music plays, waiting for the federal court to cut in.

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