DNC hearing officer: Controversial Alabama Democratic Party bylaws ‘must be invalidated’

New rules led to abolition of youth, LGBTQ+ and disabled caucuses and demotion of other groups

By: - October 4, 2023 7:01 am

Randy Kelley, chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, presides over the party meeting in Montgomery on July 29, 2023. (Alander Rocha/Alabama Reflector)

A Democratic National Committee official Tuesday said a controversial set of bylaws adopted the Alabama Democratic Party on May 6 should be overturned.

The finding from Kim Keenan, a hearing officer for the DNC, came ahead of a Friday meeting of the national party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC), which is investigating complaints over the May 6 meeting, which eliminated three diversity caucuses in the state party and demoted others.

Daniel Wessel, a spokesperson for the DNC, wrote in an email Tuesday that the RBC has not decided whether to vote on the complaints at its Friday meeting. Members of the state party also complained that they were forced to pay a $50 fee to enter the meeting, without being alerted beforehand.

“The lack of notice (regarding non-payment of the fee), lack of due process in barring the payment of the fee, lack of transparency, and most importantly, the fact that the margin of victory is clearly correlative to the number of SDEC members denied credentials, all collectively contribute to the conclusion that the May 2023 Bylaw vote must be invalidated,” Keenan wrote.


Alabama Democrats clash over party direction in contentious DNC hearing

While she does not explicitly recommend that the 2019 bylaws be reinstated, she suggests several times that the issues would be resolved by doing so.

ADP Chair Randy Kelley said in a phone interview Tuesday that he had reviewed Keenan’s findings.

“We’ll deal with that when we get there,” he said, referring to the future RBC vote. 

April Hodges, one of the challengers to the May bylaws, said in an interview Tuesday that she was heartened by the report.

“I think that’s definitely the direction that I expected it to go in,” Hodges said. “[Keenan’s] job was to find the facts, and the facts were clear in the very beginning that we were removed.”

Alabama Democratic Party Vice Chair Tabitha Isner, one of the challengers seeking to invalidate the bylaws passed in the May 6 meeting, said in a phone interview that Kelley didn’t present a case based on facts, and said, “in that sense, I feel like this is not, at all, surprising.”

“What happened on May 6 was not valid given how people were disenfranchised,” she said.

A years-long battle

The Alabama Democratic Party in 2019 adopted new bylaws creating several new caucuses representing different groups, including youths, Hispanics, LGBTQ+ individuals, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. The changes came after a bitter months-long fight between a faction loyal to Minority Affairs Vice Chair Joe Reed and then-U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, in which then-chair Nancy Worley, a Reed ally, refused to adopt the bylaws despite mounting threats from the DNC. 

Worley and Kelley, then vice-chair, were ousted, and new leaders adopted the bylaws.

The Reed faction won back control of the state party in August 2022. At the May 6 meeting, the SDEC voted to abolish the youth, LGBTQ+ and disabled caucuses, while reducing the power of other minority caucuses. The leadership said the 2019 bylaws unfairly reduced the power of Black voters, who make up the majority of the state Democratic electorate.

The challengers said that the moves amounted to discrimination based on disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and race and ethnicity. The impact of the bylaw changes, challengers argued, was to gut diverse participation in the party.

Tabitha Isner, vice chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, hands Joe Reed, the chair of the Minority (Black) Caucus, a piece of paper at the party meeting on July 29 in Montgomery.

Keenan found that the $50 fee was not new or targeted to any group and was consistent with prior long standing practice, as previously claimed by Kelley and Reed, chair of the Minority (Black) Caucus. The fee was characterized as a “donation” by challengers at the hearing, but the fee was to be expected, Keenan concluded, and that charging a qualifying fee was not to have a discriminatory effect.

But Keenan added that it was “clear that payment of the fee constituted a barrier to participation in the May meeting and the all-important vote on the change in the Bylaws.”

Hodges said that “some things maybe could have been told a little better,” and that while there was knowledge of the fee by several members, she said it shouldn’t have been characterized as “known.”

“We have a lot of new – not just at large members, but we have also new SDEC district members, as well,” she said, but added that Keenan arrived at the conclusion that not providing notice of the fee created a barrier to participation.

According to the officer findings, Kelley acknowledged the May 2023 bylaws “do treat the Minority (Black) Caucus differently.”

The Minority (Black) Caucus remained a caucus and has full self-determination. That means the caucus may select At-Large members without a confirmation vote by the State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC). Other minority caucuses were rebranded as committees, and lost self-determination.

The weight of history

Reed and Kelley suggest that the Hawthorne v. Baker lawsuit, a 1990 federal court case which allowed Black Democrats to have self-determination, allowed the differential treatment based on a history of discrimination and a struggle for representation in the ADP. But Keenan wrote in her finding that “one could argue that Hawthorne is the reason why every group must have its own self-determination.”

Hodges said this history makes it hard to find a solution.

“There’s just so much history and so much pain and suffering on all sides,” she said.

The reason why she got involved, ultimately, was because she wanted the truth to be told,

“And that is that our votes were taken away and it was an unjust way,” Hodges said.

Alabama Democrats eliminate youth, LGBTQ+, disabled caucuses at contentious meeting

Keenan also said the party should be clear on the standards used to calculate minority participation in the SDEC, but said that should be addressed after reinstating the prior bylaws.

Keenan also found that the party did not follow the procedure for permitting individual SDEC members to make changes to or present rules or bylaws to the SDEC, and that leadership did not provide appropriate notice for the May 6 meeting. Several members found out about the meeting via unofficial means, such as social media, according to her findings.

Challengers also allege that streaming the May 6 meeting was required according to the 2019 bylaws, but Keenan did not find that the bylaws do not mandate meetings to be livestreamed. She did, however, make a note that “there needs to [be] transparency on the appropriate and reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities so that everyone can actively and effectively participate in meetings.”

Keenan found that it was unclear whether procedure was followed in establishing a quorum and denying a roll call vote. She said it is unclear whether there was a motion for a roll call vote or that Kelley refused the vote.

Isner said after reading the report, she wanted to know what the DNC would do to ensure the events of the May 6 meeting would not happen again.

She said there should be protections in place to make sure that rules are followed. She suggested more oversight with hiring a third party to administer credentialing.

“It’s very difficult, it’s like having a teenager, you can tell them the rules all day and they can sign on the dotted line saying they understand the rules, but at the end of the day, we know that they don’t feel obligated to follow them,” she said.

Delandrion Woods, chair of the Youth Caucus abolished in the May 2023 bylaws, said that he hopes there is a clear path forward after Friday’s meeting. He said that whether the DNC wants the state party to go back to the previous bylaws or to have a May 6 do-over, directions should be clear so that “no one can misinterpret” the ruling. 

“Whatever the decision is, I just hope it is clear and concise,” he said.


Read the report.

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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.