Alabama Legislature nears final vote on controversial congressional maps
Both maps have one minority-majority district and one that ranges from 38 to 42% Black
Sen. Steve Livington, R-Scottsboro (left) speaks with Rep. Mark Pringle, R-Mobile, during a meeting of the Permanent Legislative Reapportionment Committee on Monday, July 17, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. Livingston and Pringle co-chair the committee. (Marvin Gentry for Alabama Reflector)
The Alabama Legislature appears headed to a conference committee over new congressional maps ordered by a federal court.
House and Senate committees Thursday voted to replace the other chamber’s proposals with their preferred plans. If the maps pass the legislative bodies on Friday, they can be referred to conference committees.
“That’s just how the process works,” said Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville, the chair of the House State Government Committee, which substituted a Senate-passed map with House Republicans’ preferred version on Thursday.
The map passed in the House, called the Communities of Interest map, has one majority-Black congressional district and one that is 42% Black. The Senate proposal, named the Livingston Plan after reapportionment committee co-chair Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, passed a similar map with one minority-majority district, but a second district that is 38% Black.
The House committee voted 10-3 to approve the Communities of Interest map, while the Senate committee voted 9-5 to approve the Livingston Plan 9-5. The vote fell along party lines. The only exception was Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, who objected to the Livingston Plan splitting Etowah County, part of his state Senate district, between the 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts.
Lawmakers from both parties said Thursday they anticipate a conference committee to have the final word in the session. Livingston said Wednesday that work on a new map could begin on Thursday.
“The Legislature is dedicated to being able to do what we said we were going to do,” Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said to reporters on Thursday. “Obviously, everybody working together is a requirement.”
Reed said that he believes that the Senate has an interest in compactness and communities of interest, while the House has more of a focus on voting population.
He said that 42% is the highest number they have seen “as a discussion from the committee.”
“Obviously, you’re going to have differences of opinion, based on people’s personal preferences related to the process, but looking at the group as a whole I think that’s been kind of the highest number that we’ve seen,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, also expects a conference committee, but he doesn’t think the committee will produce a map.
“We might be back here Monday,” he said to reporters.
Alabama’s order to redraw its congressional districts came after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2022 lower court ruling stating that Alabama’s congressional maps violated the Voting Rights Act. The case, Allen v. Milligan, was initiated by Black plaintiffs who argued that the 2021 adopted map packed Black voters into the 7th Congressional District, making it challenging for them to form coalitions with white voters and elect their preferred representatives.
A three-judge panel ruled for the plaintiffs in January 2022, citing the high degree of racial polarization in Alabama voting, with white Alabamians predominantly supporting Republicans and Black Alabamians favoring Democrats. The court mandated that the state must create new maps that, at a minimum, allow Black voters the opportunity to elect two representatives of their choice.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling in June.
To comply with the court’s order, the Legislature must submit the revised congressional maps to the federal court by Friday. Failure to meet the deadline or submitting maps the court deems unsatisfactory could lead the court to order a third party, commonly referred to as a special master, to draw the maps on their behalf.
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Democrats have pushed unsuccessfully for a map with two majority-Black districts. Republicans have argued that districts with 38 to 42% Black population would provide an opportunity for Black voters to elect their preferred candidates. Some Republicans, like Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, have suggested that Milligan plaintiffs said they would be satisfied with those percentages.
But Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville, said in the House committee Thursday that the statements were made in reference to the “Singleton Plan,” an alternative congressional proposal introduced by Democrats in 2021 that would have kept counties whole, but not created congressional districts with majority-Black populations.
“Those statements weren’t made under oath,” Lawrence said. “Those statements were made prior to this litigation. Those statements were made during the reapportionment and redistricting sessions in 2021. And they were sent by email.”
Lawrence shared an email from the plaintiffs’ attorneys to Dorman Walker, legal counsel for the committee chairs. The attorneys said that Evan Milligan sent an email in support of the “Singleton Plan,” but that Milligan testified during the 2022 January preliminary injunction hearing that he supports two majority-minority districts.
“As Mr. Milligan explained, he dropped his support for the Singleton Plan in 2021 after he learned about other plans that included two majority-Black districts,” the email read.
Walker’s office declined comment on Thursday.
In the Senate committee, which Livingston chairs, Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, asked for functionality reports – which model how elections might go in a newly created district – on the Livingston map, which he has done for the last couple of days.
“I’m getting the perception that they don’t want to give us the information and they ain’t gonna give it to us,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said demographers don’t draw maps without generating the reports.
“They have the report,” he said. “They cannot draw the map without the report. That’s the practice of the profession. So they have it. They can produce it to us.”
Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, who spoke before the committee after Smitherman requested a staff member, said that the directions from the court were not clear about how to resolve the issues in the maps.
“It’s also frustrating because I don’t think the court gave us a whole lot of specific guidance about how to make that map better,” he said.
The comments were similar to those by Livingston, who said he felt the map met the Voting Rights Act laws, but he didn’t know how the court defined their standards.
“Nobody knows what the definition of opportunity is,” he said.
The maps move to their respective chambers and will be on the floor Friday. If the chambers approve the maps, conference committees could be called on either or both bills, which would allow the introduction of a new map.
Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said that this is not about “D’s and R’s” but about fairness.
“This is an opportunity, Mr. Chairman, for one time in the state of Alabama, for the records to get it right,” Boyd said. “But to get it right, it takes courage to remove a D and remove an R, and do the right thing that they asked us to do.”
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