Drawing Lines in the Black Belt

Drawing Lines in the Black Belt

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 In Alabama, the region known as the Black Belt, aside from the rich, black topsoil that provides its name, also happens to be home to a large number of the state’s African-American voters.

In August, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a nationwide advocacy group, filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of those voters. The ADL claims that Alabama’s post-2010 census redistricting used “unconstitutional” race-based criteria when redrawing the district lines.

According to the brief, “The drafters’ primary, if not exclusive, concern was to maintain the percentage of black voters in majority-minority districts drawn in the prior redistricting scheme.” The ADL hopes that the court will overturn the redistricting plan, which they claim used “naked racial quotas” to determine the new districts.

Between 2000 and 2010, Alabama’s population increased by 332,636 — a 7.5 percent growth. During that time, in 2010, Republicans gained control of the state House and Senate for the first time in more than a century.

With the GOP controlling the Alabama legislature, members of the ADL argue that the post-2010 district lines were drawn with the intent to “dilute minority voting power” in the majority-minority districts.

Deborah Lauter, ADL civil rights director, issued a statement calling the plan “unconstitutional” and “troublesome” and condemned the racial motives she believes shaped the new district lines.

“States can and should consider racial composition when drawing district lines, but they cannot do so at the expense of traditional race-neutral districting principles. When Alabama undertook its latest redistricting scheme its primary concern was with meeting racial quotas that it had set for each district. As a result, some of the districts were more than 75 percent black. That is unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, and it results in diluted minority voting power elsewhere in the state,” Lauter continued.

Alabama State Rep. Jim McClendon (R-St. Clair and Shelby Counties) was co-chair of the committee which drafted the redistricting plan. He said that race was considered to avoid “retrogression.”

McClendon said that due to dramatic population changes, the committee considered race when redrawing the plan to avoid infringing on the non-retrogression requirement of the Voting Rights Act.

“Retrogression is something we knew the U.S. Department of Justice would be looking at. And the definition of retrogression, for this purpose, is that the minorities would be worse off after redistricting. We knew how many House members we had that were black and how many were in the Senate and we tried to be respectful of that. And we were. In fact in the House the [redistricting] increased the number of minority districts by one,” McClendon said.

After initially being rejected in May of 2011 because of several district changes in Morgan and Franklin counties that legislators did not agree with, the state Senate and House both approved the new district map on June 2, 2011.

Before the 2010 census, the rules for redistricting in Alabama permitted a 5 percent deviation of population in each district. However, for the latest redistricting, the Alabama legislature adopted a new policy that only permitted a 1 percent change to the population in a district. The change was approved on a federal level. Members of the ADL argue this forces the redistricting committee to rely on meeting racial quotas.

Lauren Jones, the ADL’s assistant director of legal affairs, has been heavily involved with the brief filed with the Supreme Court. She said the redistricting has to be “narrowly tailored” and “there has to be compelling state interest to draw the district lines that way.” Jones said the post-2010 districts do not meet this criteria and deserve scrutiny from the court system.

“In drawing the district lines in Alabama we think that the senators and representatives and the experts who did it were really focusing primarily on racial considerations. They were lowering the considerations of keeping the districts compact, making sure the precincts weren’t split. That really raised a red flag with us,” Jones said.

Rep. John Rogers (D-Jefferson County) testified last month with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of Jefferson County regarding what he calls “blatant gerrymandering” by the committee which drew the new district lines.

“My district was 55 percent black. After the district lines were redrawn it jumped up to 77 percent. You don’t need 77 percent to win an election. That’s called packing,” Rogers said.

“They did the same thing with the white districts. Ideally you want to have some mix in the population of the districts. Not black and white,” Rogers said.

He noted similar cases that were overturned in Florida and Georgia. He says he is confident that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of those who opposed the redistricting. “I feel like this is the same criteria as the cases in Florida and Georgia. I mean Jefferson County is a great example of how they are trying to dilute the minority vote and keep the white districts white and the black districts black.”

McClendon maintains the redistricting plan was based primarily on changes in population, not race. “Of course a lot of the districts had to change rather dramatically simply because there were big changes in population. So we had to take that into consideration. That’s what it’s all about, that’s what reapportionment is — drawing the districts to get them in balance again. Some were 20,000 over, some were 20,000 under. So each legislator who wished — and not all of them did — came up and looked at the proposed districts and told us what they thought,” McClendon said.

According to the brief, McClendon and other members of the committee testified before a three-judge court in 2012. McClendon testified that the committee “tried not to change the percentages of citizens, the black citizens.”

However, after the districts were redrawn, some representatives found themselves living in another district. In one instance, “House Districts 53 and 73, incumbents Demetrius Newton and Joe Newton were each left living in the other’s district,” according to the ADL brief.

Alabama’s Black Belt is historically composed of 18 counties that stretch across the state’s midsection. McClendon said that since the population in these counties has been declining since 2001, the new districts were drawn to balance these population changes.

Montgomery County is one that has seen a decline in population. “We had two districts that we moved, one moved from a minority area — Montgomery County — where the population had dramatically fallen. We moved that district to Shelby County where the population had dramatically increased. We had another district in Jefferson County where the same thing happened and it became another minority district,” McClendon explained. Those districts, he recalled, were House districts 42 and 53.

Jones believes that the drafters’ understanding of the non-retrogression section of the Voting Rights Act is flawed, and that it shouldn’t be about “maintaining quotas” with a set percentage.

“You can’t have retrogression from the last election,” Jones said. “Their understanding of that was that the percentage of black voters in any given district couldn’t drop at all. What that means is that you are essentially creating a racial quota; that you have to have a certain number and you can never go back from there.

“But the non-retrogression piece in the Voting Rights Act was actually supposed to be that minority voters would have the same kind of opportunity to elect their chosen representatives,” Jones continued. “That doesn’t mean you have to have set percentages. When you have a set percentage that raises all kinds of constitutional issues.”

Jones said it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will make a decision about the constitutionality of the post-2010 redistricting this year.