Panel orders special master to draw new Congressional map

Published 7:30 am Thursday, September 7, 2023

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An updated Congressional district map approved by the Alabama Legislature earlier this summer has been rejected by a three-judge federal court panel which has ordered a new map be drawn by a special master and cartographer.

The three-judge federal court had ruled last year that Alabama’s congressional districts did not fairly represent Black voters and that a second district was needed where Black voters have an opportunity to elect candidates. Black voters represent 27 percent of the state’s population and currently only one of Alabama’s seven districts have a Black majority of voters. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed leading to the state having to redraw its district map.

In July, the state legislature approved a new map that maintained one majority Black district, which is District 7 currently represented by Democrat Rep. Terri Sewell. The map did increase the Black vote in Dist. 2 in the southeast portion of the state from approximately 30 to 40 percent.

The three-judge panel held a hearing on the latest map last month. Lawyers for the state argued that the new map complied with the Voting Rights Act although they did not dispute that it did not create a second opportunity district for Black voters.

“Based on the evidence before us, including testimony from the Legislators, we have no reason to believe that allowing the Legislature still another opportunity to draw yet another map will yield a map that includes an additional opportunity district,” the court said in its order. “Moreover, counsel for the State has informed the Court that, even if the Court were to grant the Legislature yet another opportunity to draw a map, it would be practically impossible for the Legislature to reconvene and do so in advance of the 2024 election cycle. Accordingly, the special master and cartographer are directed to commence work forthwith on a remedial map.”

The Alabama Republican Party released the following statement following the decision by the federal panel. “While we respect the Court, we are disappointed in its decision, and we trust that the State will ultimately prevail in this litigation.”

The Chair of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, Sen. Merika Coleman (D-Pleasant Grove), released the following statement regarding the decision.

“The decision today represents what we in this state already knew to be true, that the Republican-led Legislature is unable to draw maps that offer black voters a chance to fairly elect representation of their choice consistent with federal laws,” Coleman said. “Alabama has a long history of voting rights struggles and victories, and we are so thankful that the panel of federal judges ruled correctly on this issue and will appoint a special master to ensure that the 2024 Congressional elections finally offer an equitable chance for black voters to have their voices heard. However, we must highlight how disappointed we are that our Republican colleagues in the Legislature have repeatedly defied both federal law and Supreme Court orders in their attempts to diminish the voting power of African Americans in Alabama, and hope they will make more substantive efforts to incorporate all voices into the redistricting process in the future.”

The map rejected by the federal court panel would have meant changes for Covington County. Currently, the entirety of the county is in Dist. 2, but the new map would have moved most of Covington County into Dist. 1 with only the northeast corner remaining in Dist. 2. With the panel’s decision to not accept the legislature’s new map, a special master and cartographer will be appointed to redraw the districts.

Legislators were required to redraw the state’s congressional districts after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s 2022 ruling that Alabama’s current districts violate the Voting Rights Act. The Allen vs. Milligan lawsuit against the congressional map, which was passed in 2021, stated the map put much of the state’s Black voters into a single district (Dist. 7). In 2022, a three-judge panel agreed, ordering the state to draw new maps that “include either 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.” The panel said the map discriminated against Black voters who represent 25 percent of the state’s population but could only win elections in one of Alabama’s seven districts. The state challenged that ruling, which led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs.