WASHINGTON — A panel of three federal judges on Monday ditched Alabama’s congressional map, ordering state lawmakers to sign a new one with two, rather than just one, districts likely to elect black representatives.
The map passed by the Republican-majority Alabama state legislature last fall drew one of the state’s seven congressional districts with a majority of black voters. The court ruled that with the state’s black population of 27 percent, the state must allocate two districts with either black majorities or “in which black voters otherwise have the option to elect a representative of their choice.”
“Black voters are less likely than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress,” the jury wrote.
The case is sure to be challenged and could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether lawmakers can draw political maps to achieve a specific racial makeup, a practice known as racial gerrymandering. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.
If Alabama’s lawmakers don’t produce and approve a new second-majority map — the black district — within 14 days, the court will designate a special master to do so, the judges wrote. That second district would be a major legal and political victory for the Democrats, who would be the overwhelming favorites to wear it.
“This decision is a victory for Alabama’s black voters, who have not been given equal representation for far too long,” said Eric H. Holder Jr., the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “The dilution of the voting rights of Alabama’s black community — through the creation of just one black-majority voter district and the splitting up of other black voters — was as obvious as it was objectionable.”
The Congressional map of Alabama is the second to be signed by Republicans and destroyed by courts this month. Two weeks ago, the Ohio Supreme Court invalidated a map signed by Republicans that would have given the GOP a likely 12-to-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation. North Carolina’s new congressional map is also embroiled in a legal battle, with several other states likely to be sued for their political cartography.
The three-judge panel consists of two federal court judges appointed by former President Donald J. Trump and one by former President Bill Clinton. All three signed the opinion. The panel pushed back the deadline for voting ballots in Alabama from January 28 to February 11 for the state primaries in May.
Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill declined to comment on the ruling.
Adam Kincaid, the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the party’s main map-making organization, said the map was based on a map approved in 2011 by President Obama’s Justice Department, then headed by Mr. Holder, and in accordance with the voting rights Act.
“The new map maintains the status quo,” said Mr. Kincaid. “It does not violate Section 2 of the VRA under the current application of the Act and should be enforced.”
How US reclassification works
What is reclassification? It is redrawing the boundaries of the congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in the population.
For three decades, Alabama has had one majority district: the black congressional district that elected black Democrats. The state’s other six districts have been represented only by white Republicans as of 2011.
In Alabama’s lone majority district, represented by Terri Sewell, a Democrat, more than 60 percent of voters are black, representing nearly a third of the state’s black population. Most of the state’s remaining black population is split — or “cracked” — among the first, second, and third congressional districts, all of which have been safely Republican for years.
In 2018, a group of black voters filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Alabama’s map violated the Voting Rights Act. They lost.
“It’s time for Alabama to move past its sordid history of racial discrimination in the polls, and to listen to and respond to the needs and concerns of voters of color,” Tish Gotell Faulks, the legal director of the Alabama ACLU, said in a statement. said after Wednesday’s ruling.
President Biden and Congressional Democrats sought to pass legislation that would have, among other things, limited partisan gerrymandering by state lawmakers. That attempt failed when Arizona Senators Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Joe Manchin III, both Democrats, thwarted a party-wide effort to overcome Republican opposition by changing Senate rules.
Nick Corasanitic reporting contributed.