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‘Sordid Record’ of Discrimination: SPLC joins other groups in filing federal lawsuit challenging racial gerrymandering in Alabama

Alabama’s newly adopted state legislative maps were deliberately drawn to diminish the political power of the state’s Black residents, continuing the state’s “sordid record” of racial discrimination in the electoral system, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week by civil rights and faith groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A second lawsuit was filed by the same organizational plaintiffs to challenge Alabama’s newly adopted congressional map under the 14th Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The lawsuit challenging the state legislative maps charges that lawmakers used racial gerrymandering techniques known as “packing” and “cracking” to deny Black residents equal opportunity to participate in the political process, in violation of the 14th Amendment.

“Packing” refers to placing people of color into the same district to prevent them from influencing elections in surrounding districts. “Cracking” refers to splitting communities of color into different districts to dilute their political power within a district.

“By packing Black voters into a small number of districts and breaking up communities of color throughout the rest of the state, Alabama’s leaders are diminishing the political power of Black Alabamians. That is unlawful,” said Caren Short, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC, which represents plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the state legislative districts. “This builds on a long history of racial discrimination in voting in Alabama – particularly when drawing political districts – and demands that a court-ordered redrawing of maps must take place immediately.”

The case – Thomas v. Merrill – was brought on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries, Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and several individuals who are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF), the SPLC, Hogan Lovells LLP, and Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher & Goldfarb. 

The new political maps – drawn as part of a once-in-a-decade redistricting process triggered by the 2020 census data – determine the allocation of political power, representation and access to resources at every level of government for the next 10 years.

The current redistricting cycle is the first since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” provision, which previously required states such as Alabama with long histories of racial discrimination to submit voting law changes to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for approval before implementation.

According to the lawsuit, Alabama’s refusal to address the rights of its Black citizens is directly linked to its history and present conditions of discrimination against Black people. 

In five of the six redistricting cycles since 1960, the DOJ or federal courts have found that Alabama’s legislative districts – congressional, state or both – violated the rights of voters under the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act. After the last redistricting, in 2010, a federal court struck down 12 legislative districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

In the current latest round of redistricting, Alabama citizens had no access to drafts of maps during the so-called “community input” process that predated the special legislative session during which they were approved. Legislative leaders drew the maps in secret, and at the eleventh hour, presented maps that use race as a predominant factor in determining district lines – but not in a way tailored to comply with the Voting Rights Act. 

“These new maps weaponize race to undermine the political power of communities of color in Alabama,” said Davin Rosborough, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “These maps violate the Constitution and run contrary to basic principles of fairness and representative democracy.”

Photo above: The Alabama State House in Montgomery, Alabama. (Credit: WikiCommons)