Alabama Lawmakers Decline to Create New Majority-Black Congressional District

Alabama Republicans pushed through a new congressional map on Friday that will test the bounds of a judicial mandate to create a second majority-Black district in the state or something “close to it,” incensing plaintiffs in the court case and Democrats who predicted the plan would never pass muster with a judicial panel charged with approving it.

A month after a surprise Supreme Court ruling that found the state’s existing map violated a landmark civil rights law by diluting the power of Black voters, the Republican supermajority in the Alabama Legislature backed a plan that would increase the share of Black voters in one of the state’s six majority-white congressional districts to about 40 percent, from about 30 percent.

The map also dropped the percentage of Black voters in the existing majority-Black district to about 51 percent from about 55 percent. In Alabama, more than one in four residents are Black.

Notably, the redrawing ensures that none of the state’s six white Republican incumbents would have to face one another in a primary to keep their seat. The proposal will have to be approved by a federal court, which will hold a hearing on it next month.

Whatever map the court ultimately approves will have electoral and political implications beyond Alabama, with control of the U.S. House of Representatives hinging on a razor-thin Republican majority and other states facing similar litigation under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Because most Black voters in Alabama support Democratic candidates, a second majority-Black district would likely elect a Democrat.

The plaintiffs in the case vowed to challenge the Legislature’s map. But even before it cleared the Legislature, Democrats and multiple voting rights advocates said it fell far short of what the court had called for and predicted that the federal court would ultimately appoint a special master to oversee yet another redrawing.

“This is the quintessential definition of noncompliance,” State Representative Chris England, a Democrat representing Tuscaloosa, told Republicans on Friday, in the final hours of a special session that began Monday for the sole purpose of creating a new map.

Speaking to reporters later, Mr. England added that “ultimately, I think the federal court is going to do what they’ve done for Alabama for decades and hopefully save us from ourselves and put us in compliance with their order to create a fair opportunity for African Americans.”

Republicans defended their map as a satisfactory adjustment, arguing that it kept areas and counties together that share similar economic and geographic priorities and that candidates preferred by Black voters could win in either of the districts whose boundaries they adjusted. They focused on a line in a lower-court ruling that suggested the possibility of creating “an additional district in which Black voters otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice,” insisting that they had done so.

Pressed by Democrats during debate, State Representative Chris Pringle, a Republican from Mobile and the speaker pro tempore, called it “the best map we could negotiate” with Republicans in the Senate.

The legal challenge that forced the special session was yet another instance in Alabama’s fraught history in which a court intervened to force the state to follow laws related to voting or civil rights. A previous legal challenge forced the creation in 1992 of the Seventh Congressional District as the state’s only majority-Black district — a seat in southwest Alabama that has since been held by a Black Democrat, including the current representative, Terri Sewell.

“Once again, the state supermajority decided that the voting rights of Black people are nothing that this state is bound to respect, and it’s offensive, it’s wrong,” said State Representative Prince Chestnut, a Democrat from Selma, after a House vote on Wednesday. The series of party-line votes, he added, “shows Alabama still has the same recalcitrant and obstreperous mind-set that it had 100 years ago.”

The three-judge panel that unanimously ordered the existing map redrawn last year is set to hold a hearing on Aug. 14, when it could decide to tap a special master.

The Supreme Court in June stunned many across the country by narrowly upholding the key remaining tenet of the Voting Rights Act, after a decade that saw the conservative majority effectively gut that law. The clause it upheld bars any rule or law that discriminates based on language or race.

Before the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court ruling, lawyers for the state of Alabama said that a new map would likely need to be in place by early October to be prepared for the 2024 primary elections.

Ahead of the five-day special session, Democrats aligned themselves behind different plans, including a map that would have created two districts in which at least 50 percent of the voting population was Black.

But the only maps to receive serious consideration by the full Legislature were put forward by Republicans.

Senator Steve Livingston, a Republican from Scottsboro, said he had spoken with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California before the vote Friday, and that Mr. McCarthy “said, ‘I’m interested in keeping my majority.’” (A spokesman for Mr. McCarthy did not immediately return a request for comment.)

On Wednesday, the Alabama House approved a map on party lines that increased the number of Black voters in the Second Congressional District to a percentage of 42.45 percent, while the Senate approved an increase to a percentage of 38.31 percent of Black voters in that district. (One Senate Republican voted against that proposal, as some conservatives complained about the decision to split individual counties between districts, or move them into a new one.)

Two days later, a Republican-dominated committee convened and within half an hour had released and advanced a compromise proposal that raised the number of Black voters to 39.9 percent. Within hours, the full Legislature had approved the proposal and sent it to Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, who signed it.

“I’m confident that we’ve done a good job — it will be up to the courts to decide whether they agree,” said State Senator Greg Reed, the Senate president pro tempore and a Republican from Jasper.

Democrats in the minority, powerless and largely cut out of the entire process, instead spent hours this week contrasting the Republican-backed maps with their own preferred proposals.

They warned against rebuking the Supreme Court and said the court order was an opportunity to embrace equitable voting representation in the state, arguing that a higher margin of Black voters was needed for their preferred candidates to prevail in a racially polarized state.

A few Democrats accused Republicans of intentionally flouting the judicial order to pave the way for another court fight that could further gut the Voting Rights Act, a decade after an Alabama county successfully challenged a key provision of the law as unconstitutional.

“All we’re asking for is equity, just to be equal, just to add some equality, just to be able to be respected and to be able to have a voice,” said State Senator Bobby Singleton, the minority leader and a Democrat from Greensboro. “I don’t think that’s too much, but obviously other folks think it is too much.”

Emily Cochrane is a national correspondent covering the American South, based in Nashville. She was previously a congressional correspondent in Washington, chronicling the annual debate over government funding and economic legislation. More about Emily Cochrane

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