Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: The redistricting chickens are coming home to roost

  There is an ominous cloud hanging over this legislative session. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court surprisingly agreed to hear a Hail Mary complaint filed by the black legislative caucus over the 2014 redistricting plan. In an even more surprising opinion, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the complainants and remanded the case back to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, instructing the lower court to tell the legislature to try again.

  The super majority Republican legislature fully complied with the Voting Rights Act and the Justice Department guidelines when they crafted the new districts prior to the 2014 legislative elections. Specifically, they protected African American districts. The plan not only reserved the current number of minority districts, which by the way has the best reflection of African American districts of any state in America, they actually created a new additional minority House seat in Huntsville.

  The GOP district plan adhered to all the criteria required by the Voting Right Act and previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The only group seemingly discriminated against are white Democrats. The legislative line drawers are not the only ones discriminating against white Democrats. The Alabama electorate has decided to make that dinosaur extinct. There are very few white Democrats left in Alabama. In the Heart of Dixie, if you are white you are a Republican, and if you are African American you are a Democrat. It is that simple.

  The Voting Rights Act was written and designed to protect and give preferential treatment to African Americans, not white Democrats. It appears that the Supreme Court is opening the door to expand the Voting Rights Act to protect the few white Democrats left in the South. Essentially, their opinion is that by packing the districts with a high percentage of African American folks, they do not have the ability to work with those whites who have their same interests. Indeed, if the Court is looking at that criteria, they are plowing new fertile ground. The proof is in the pudding. There is only one white Democrat left in the 35 member Alabama Senate.

  The Supreme Court zeroed in on Senate District 26, a black district in Montgomery represented by Sen. Quinton Ross. They say that his district was packed with too many black citizens. The high Court’s decision represents a legal reversal. Previously, the Court has forced southern states to create “majority-minority” districts more likely to elect black lawmakers. Now, the justices are saying it may be illegal to have too many blacks clustered in one district.

  The opinion was unclear as to whether or not new elections would be called for under their order. They simply sent it back to the 11th Circuit to review. The GOP majority seem confident that the 11th Circuit will not throw their 2014 plan out and call for new elections. However, that may be false bravado. A reapportionment plan has a domino effect. If the Court says Senate District 26 is too packed, as described by the Supreme Court, you cannot tweak that district without creating a ripple effect throughout the entire state.

  The legislative black caucus is reveling in the decision and have unveiled new redistricting maps that they say address concerns raised by the Supreme Court. They also argue that their plan respects and protects county lines, which is called for under Alabama’s 1901 Constitution. The current plan crisscrosses and destroys county lines, especially in urban areas. This argument holds water because under Alabama’s antiquated constitution, counties must go to the legislature to get their edicts approved. A divided county makes it difficult, especially in metropolitan areas.

  The GOP majority may need to take this ruling seriously. They cannot cavalierly ignore and dismiss the Democratic minority on this issue like they systematically do on all other issues, because the minority has the U.S. Supreme Court in their corner. If they take an ostrich approach to this redistricting issue, like they have to the state’s finances, they may very well have to run again next year. There is a precedent to it. It happened in 1982-1983.

  Some people are suggesting that the GOP majority may privately believe that they will have to run again this year or next and that is why they do not want to vote on any taxes. Their opponents could tie their tax vote around their neck.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at http://www.steveflowers.us/. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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