A recent gerrymandering federal lawsuit against the state of Alabama highlights the unending fight between political parties to decide on congressional districts.
In Alabama, the latest episode in this conflict is a challenge to a redistricting the state made in 2011. The federal lawsuit argues that the state drew districts to pack largely Democrat-voting African Americans into a single district.
By doing so, Republican-controlled Alabama ensured one solidly Democratic district and six Republican districts.
Two of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs are Alabama Democratic politicians. Alabama state senator Rodger Smitherman and state senator Bobby Singleton, who are African American.
If their lawsuit succeeds, Alabama’s congressional districts will be redrawn to have five Republican districts and two districts that could go narrowly to the Democrats.
The lawsuit argues that Alabama’s 7th Congressional District unfairly clustered minority voters. The district is 55 percent African American.
Alabama Republican Party chair John Wahl said that the previous district arrangement was both fair and appreciated by minorities.
“If we’re really concerned about minority rights, we want to protect minorities and make sure they have a voice representing them in Congress,” said Wahl. “What I seem to be seeing happen now is just an attempt to make sure that there’s Democrat representation.”
Wahl said that another Democrat district in Arkansas isn’t fair. Alabama’s population is 29 percent African American, but the state’s ties to the Republican Party are far deeper. In 2020, 63 percent of state residents voted for Donald Trump.
“If all seven congressional districts were split fairly without any attempt to put communities anywhere, we would have seven Republican districts and no Democratic districts and seven white districts with no minority districts,” he said.
Alabama ranks as one of America’s most conservative states, but this change could allow Democrats a chance to increase their political power there.
If fairness means majority rule, Republicans should win all of Alabama. But if fairness means proportionate representation, African Americans should choose about a third of Alabama’s candidates.
So which answer is it?
The Supreme Court decided that federal courts cannot hear political gerrymandering challenges because districting questions like this one are inherently political.
But the Voting Rights Act of 1965 complicates this issue by outlawing race-based gerrymander, even when it impacts politics. Because 80 percent of African Americans self-identify as Democrat, this question is concerningly political.
According to counsel Mitchell Brown for the non-partisan Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), judging the difference between legal partisan gerrymandering and illegal racial gerrymandering can be difficult.
The SCSJ receives money from George Soros’s left-wing Foundation to Promote Open Society as well as the left-wing Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
“That is the million-dollar question,” said Brown. “There is definitely an overlap between partisan affiliation and race.”
Brown said one possible answer as to whether a gerrymander is illegal is based on whether it harms minorities. Alabama’s maps guarantee minorities a few representatives, but they also cluster African American voting power into one district.
But this approach grounds claims that Alabama’s districts are illegal on implied connections rather than indisputable fact.
“The more circumstantial evidence you have, the more the court understands the connection between the two,” said Brown.
Making congressional districts fair involves uncertainties, said Theodore Arrington, a retired professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, North Carolina.
Arrington was part of a successful 2012 lawsuit against Alabama that argued districts needed more minority voters.
Good districts follow natural boundaries, observe local government lines, provide proportionate representation, he said.
But a smart politician can follow all these rules and still make unfair districts, he said.
“If you’re clever, you can appear to follow all of those traditional district lines, and still create a gerrymander,” said Arrington.
Sometimes, gerrymandering attempts can inadvertently result in competitive districts.
Republicans weren’t always in charge of Alabama, said Arrington. In 2000, Democrats in charge attempted to create gerrymandered districts.
But they messed up, he said. He called it “dummy-mandering.”
“You get greedy, and you cut too many districts too close to the margin,” he said. “And the Republicans took those districts.”
But when Republicans took power, they drew districts to their own advantage, said Arrington.
The new district suggested by the lawsuit would have 40 percent African American voters. As Democrats did in the early 2000s, it would trade certainty for the chance at a higher political payout.
Even if the lawsuit wins, only time will tell whether this choice will profit the Democrats of Alabama.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the state name of Alabama.