Two recent gerrymandering federal lawsuits against the state of Alabama highlight the unending fight between political parties to decide on congressional districts.
In Alabama, the latest episode in this conflict is a challenge to a redistricting the state made in 2011. The federal lawsuits argue that the state drew districts to pack largely Democrat-voting African Americans into a single district.
By doing so, Republican-controlled Alabama ensured one solidly Democratic district and six Republican districts.
Arkansas Republican Party chair John Wahl said that this district arrangement was both fair and appreciated by minorities.
“If we’re really concerned about minority rights, we want to protect minorities and make sure they have a voice representing them in Congress,” said Wahl. “What I seem to be seeing happen now is just an attempt to make sure that there’s Democrat representation.”
But recent lawsuits by plaintiffs including Democratic politicians Sen. Rodger Smitherman and Sen. Bobby Singleton will attempt to overturn the current arrangement.
If the lawsuits win, Alabama’s Congressional districts will be redrawn to have five Republican districts and two districts that could go narrowly to the Democrats.
Alabama ranks as one of America’s most conservative states, but this change could allow Democrats a chance to increase their political power there.
Wahl said that another Democrat district in Arkansas isn’t fair. Alabama’s population is 29 percent African American, but the state’s ties to the Republican Party are far deeper. In 2020, 63 percent of state residents voted for Donald Trump.
“If all seven congressional districts were split fairly without any attempt to put communities anywhere, we would have seven Republican districts and no Democratic districts and seven white districts with no minority districts,” he said.
However, Southern Coalition for Social Justice counsel Mitchell Brown said the current arrangement is unfair.
“If you look at the proportion of congressional districts, there should be at least two majority-minority districts where black voters in those districts will be able to elect their candidate of choice,” he said.
If fairness means majority rule, Republicans should win all of Alabama. But if fairness means proportionate representation, African Americans should choose about a third of Alabama’s candidates.
So which answer is it?
The Supreme Court decided that federal courts cannot hear political gerrymandering challenges because districting questions like this one are inherently political.
But the Voting Rights Act of 1965 complicates this issue by outlawing race-based gerrymander, even when it impacts politics. Because 80 percent of African Americans self-identify as Democrat, this question is concerningly political.
“That is the million-dollar question,” said Brown. “There is definitely an overlap between partisan affiliation and race.”
Brown said one possible answer as to whether a gerrymander is illegal is based on whether it harms minorities. Alabama’s maps guarantee minorities a few representatives, but they also cluster African American voting power into one district.
The seventh congressional district is 55 percent African American.
“I think that was to the detriment of black voters,” he said.
Brown said that although Alabama didn’t look at racial data before drawing district maps, the state could have used Democrat votes as a proxy for the location of African Americans.
The case that Alabama’s districts are illegal relies on implied connections rather than indisputable fact.
“The more circumstantial evidence you have, the more the court understands the connection between the two,” said Brown.
Making congressional districts fair involves uncertainties, said Theodore Arrington, a retired professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, North Carolina. Arrington was part of a successful 2012 lawsuit against Alabama that argued districts needed more minority voters.
Good districts follow natural boundaries, observe local government lines, provide proportionate representation, he said.
But a smart politician can follow all these rules and still make unfair districts, he said.
“If you’re clever, you can appear to follow all of those traditional district lines, and still create a gerrymander,” said Arrington.
Sometimes, gerrymandering attempts can inadvertently result in competitive districts.
Republicans weren’t always in charge of Arkansas, said Arrington. In 2000, Democrats in charge attempted to create gerrymandered districts.
But they messed up, he said. He called it “dummy-mandering.”
“You get greedy, and you cut too many districts too close to the margin,” he said. “And the Republicans took those districts.”
But when Republicans took power, they drew districts to their own advantage, said Arrington.
The new district suggested by the lawsuit would have 40 percent African American voters. As in the early 2000s, it would trade certainty for the chance at a higher political payout.
Even if the lawsuit wins, only time will tell whether this choice will profit the Democrats or African Americans of Arkansas.