New Alabama congressional map headed to final votes in Alabama Legislature

Proposal would create 50%, 40% Black population districts; Democrats say map won’t follow court order

By: and - July 21, 2023 12:31 pm
The Senate chamber. A senator speaks at a podium on the far left; a group of senators huddle in a corner on the right.

Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove (left, at podium) speaks in opposition to a Republican-supported congressional map as Senate Republicans (right) huddle in a corner on July 21, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. The Alabama Legislature was expected to approve GOP congressional maps, which Democrats say will not satisfy a federal court order. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

An Alabama conference committee Friday approved a congressional map that would create a majority-Black congressional district in western Alabama and a district in southeast Alabama that would be about 40% Black.  

The proposal put more Black voters in the southeastern district, a proposed 2nd Congressional District, than a Senate proposal that would have set it at 38%. It would be less than a House proposal that set it at 42%. And it is far less than the majority-Black district Democrats sought. 

A multicolored map of Alabama's congressional districts.
A congressional map approved by a conference committee of the Alabama Legislature on July 21, 2023. (Alabama Legislature)

“It was a change in how that brought in additional compactness,” said Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, a co-chair of the Permanent Legislative Reapportionment Committee who sponsored the new map. “When we ran the numbers, they were substantially better than any of the other numbers that we had included in the previous Livingston Two map.”

But Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, cited a study on a previous version of the proposed district that said it would overwhelmingly support former President Donald Trump. 

“There is no opportunity there for anybody other than a white Republican to win that district,” Smitherman said after the vote. “It would never, ever elect a Democrat.”

The proposal would also reduce the current Black voting age population of the 7th Congressional District, a majority-Black district currently represented by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, from 55.26% to 50.65%.

The House and Senate will hold final votes on the proposal Friday afternoon.

The Republican-dominated committee rejected an amendments from Smitherman that would have moved the second proposed district from the southeast to the Birmingham area. Another amendment from Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, that would have created two majority-Black congressional districts, was also rejected by the committee.

The road to committee

A man in a white suit shakes hands with a seated man in a dark suit.
Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, shakes hands with Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville, during a special session on redistricting on Friday, July 21, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. Sen. Maj Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville walks past in the background. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama House earlier approved a remedial congressional map, called the “Community of Interest” map, with one minority-majority congressional district and one that is about 42% Black, on a 76-27 party-line vote.

About an hour later, the Alabama Senate approved a proposal known as the Livington Plan, with a majority-Black district and a district that is 38% Black, after voting down three Democratic-supported proposals. The vote was 22-6, mostly down party lines.

Republicans in both chambers defended the maps as compliant with a 2022 court order that found that the state’s 2021 congressional maps violated the Voting Rights Act.

“I think the Supreme Court handed down the ruling that we are advised to comply with,” said Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, who sponsored the Republicans’ House map. “I believe my map complies with what the court ordered us to do.”

Democrats noted the court’s 2022 ruling found that a compliant map would need to be majority-Black or something “quite close” to it.  The percentages in the Republican versions of the 2nd Congressional District, they said, would not allow Black Alabamians the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.

A man in a blue suit and yellow tie gestures.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa , speaks with reporters following a conference committee meeting during a special session on redistricting on Friday, July 21, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

England said during the House debate Friday that Democrats and a share of Republicans in the chamber have something in common as they were kept in the dark throughout the process. He said they had absolutely nothing to do with drawing these maps and said “many of us have been force fed a map or two that we have no choice but to vote no.”

“And if I was a rank-and-file Republican here, and I was handed the same sort of map,” he said, “then I would be – even if I agree with it – would be upset by the fact that you’re going to hand it to me and tell me this is what we’re going to do.”

No House Republican spoke in support or against the maps presented.

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, suggested that Republicans were trying to use the maps to challenge Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bans voting laws with racially discriminatory intent. 

“If you don’t want us to have a voice in Washington DC today, you might not want me to have a voice in Montgomery tomorrow,” he said.

Different interpretations

A woman speaking at a podium and gesturing.
Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, speaks during a special session on redistricting on Friday, July 21, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Alabama was ordered to redraw its congressional districts after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling in 2022, which found that the state’s congressional maps violated the Voting Rights Act. The case, known as Allen v. Milligan, was brought forth by Black plaintiffs who argued that the 2021 adopted map unfairly concentrated Black voters in the 7th Congressional District, making it difficult for them to form alliances with white voters and elect their preferred representatives.

In January 2022, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, pointing to the significant racial polarization in Alabama’s voting patterns, with white voters largely supporting Republicans and Black voters tending to favor Democrats. As a remedy, the court ordered the state to create new congressional maps that would, at the very least, provide Black voters with the opportunity to elect two representatives of their choice.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling in June.

To adhere to the court’s order, the Legislature must submit the revised congressional maps to the federal court by Friday. Failing to meet the deadline or presenting maps deemed unsatisfactory by the court could result in the court appointing a third party, commonly referred to as a special master, to draw the maps on behalf of the state.

Republicans and Democrats clashed throughout the special session about what remedies would satisfy the court. Pringle and Livingston have zeroed in on language in the 2022 ruling that said that a second district would need to give Black voters an “opportunity” to elect their preferred representatives. The legislators argue that a district would not need to have a majority-Black population to achieve that.

Members of the Republican caucus have also suggested that the court should have given them more guidance on what would constitute an acceptable map.

“The court could have given us a little bit better directive on where we were headed,” Livingston said during the Senate debate Friday morning. “We would have wanted a better definition of opportunity. It would have helped all of us better.”

Democrats said racially-polarized voting in the state meant that a majority-Black district was critical for Black Alabamians to be able to select their preferred candidates. House Democrats said Wednesday that while a 38 to 42% Black district might be winnable for Democrats in urban counties like Jefferson or Madison, with more racial crossover in voting, it would be impossible in the rural Wiregrass, where they said such crossover voting is almost nonexistent.

Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who sponsored a constitutional amendment approved by voters last year to remove racist language from the state Constitution, said that vote allowed her to tell people about a “21st century Alabama.”

“When we get to this issue, when we’re talking about more fairness and equity, I’ve been quite disappointed,” she said.

Republican senators huddled in a corner of the Senate during a portion of Coleman’s speech.

During debate in the Senate Friday morning, Smitherman spoke about the history of Black representation in the state. Alabama sent three Black men to the U.S. House of Representatives between 1871 and 1877. But with the rise of the state’s Jim Crow regime, Black Alabamians did not have a chance to elect their preferred candidates until after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The state did not send a Black Alabamian to Congress until 1992.

“Technically from that point, up until this time, we have been trying to march forward to just get back to where we were as a people,” he said.

Updated at 1:17 p.m. with the proposed map and additional quotes.

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Alander Rocha
Alander Rocha

Alander Rocha is a journalist based in Montgomery, and he reports on government, policy and healthcare. He previously worked for KFF Health News and the Red & Black, Georgia's student newspaper. He is a Tulane and Georgia alumnus with a two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps.

Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.