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Inside the fight over Alabama's congressional maps

Alabama's state Capitol has been the location of fights over redistricting. The Supreme Court hears a case this fall that could have implications for gerrymandering across the country.
Andi Rice for NPR
Alabama's state Capitol has been the location of fights over redistricting. The Supreme Court hears a case this fall that could have implications for gerrymandering across the country.

Updated March 27, 2022 at 8:21 AM ET

Alabama is ground zero for what could be this year's highest-profile legal fight over voting rights and representation.

Just over 25% of Alabama's active registered voters are Black, as is 27% of Alabama's population. But Alabama will only have one majority-Black congressional district, out of seven in the state, for elections this year.

Progressive and civil rights groups say the congressional map should be redrawn — there should be two majority-Black districts.

"Creating a second district would basically bring our congressional representation further in line with the actual realities of our population growth over the last 10 years," says Evan Milligan, the executive director of Alabama Forward, a nonprofit coalition formed to encourage civic engagement and advocate for progressive policies.

Milligan and others sued Alabama to draw a new map. In January, a federal three-judge panel agreed with them, saying that "Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress." The panel ordered Alabama lawmakers to come up with a new map with two majority-Black districts, "or something quite close to it."

But last month, the Supreme Court let Alabama's newest district map stand for now while it prepares to hear the full case this fall.

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The case could have major implications for the future of gerrymandering in states around the country.

To examine how we got here, NPR traveled to Alabama to talk to people involved in the case and to hear their perspective on the fight over Alabama's political future.

A progressive activist wanted to take action

Evan Milligan is one of the parties in the lawsuit against Alabama's redistricting. It's headed to the Supreme Court this fall.
/ Andi Rice for NPR
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Andi Rice for NPR
Evan Milligan is one of the parties in the lawsuit against Alabama's redistricting. It's headed to the Supreme Court this fall.

Milligan grew up in Montgomery, a majority-Black city divided among three congressional districts in recent years. He describes himself as six generations removed from slavery in Alabama.

In his work with the nonprofit Alabama Forward, Milligan has already been working to mobilize people to vote and doing voter education. He's been involved in the fight over redistricting for the last few years.

The core of his argument in the case, he says, goes back to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: a ban on voting practices that deny or limit people's voting rights on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group.

"The Voting Rights Act really requires that where you have patterns of discrimination against nonwhite voters that there should there should be an opportunity for voters in that area to have to be able to elect the candidate of their choice," he says.

He asked to be a part of the lawsuit when he heard that the ACLU of Alabama and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund were challenging the newest map, drawn by Alabama's Republican-majority legislature last year.

He joined the case — now called Merrill v. Milligan — not even expecting the lower court to take his side.

"Doing activist and advocacy work in Alabama, it's about making the case, building the record and still calling the country and the state to account on what our stated values are as far as democracy," Milligan says. "So it was important to challenge it. And then you never know. Like, it's like weather sometimes ... something might surprise you."

A Republican mapmaker says the districts were drawn without regard to race

Republican state Sen. Jim McClendon is one of the chairs of the state's redistricting commission, the group that helps draw up the state's voting maps. He says the courts haven't provided much guidance on drawing districts.
/ Andi Rice for NPR
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Andi Rice for NPR
Republican state Sen. Jim McClendon is one of the chairs of the state's redistricting commission, the group that helps draw up the state's voting maps. He says the courts haven't provided much guidance on drawing districts.

Republican state Sen. Jim McClendon is one of the chairs of the state's redistricting commission — the group that helps draw up the state's voting maps.

"When we drew the districts, we drew the districts race-blind. In other words, as our computer – as the lines moved on the screen, the numbers changed. We didn't have race up there because we couldn't. You're not supposed to use race. Voting Rights Act tells you very clearly: You can't use race in doing this," he says.

"Then the three-judge panel comes along and says, you need to redraw these," he says. "You need to draw two districts that are majority African American districts or two that are very close to that, which means you've got to use race."

The Supreme Court has found that outright racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional. But contrary to McClendon's argument, it has also interpreted the Voting Rights Act as actually requiring race to be considered when redistricting under certain conditions — when white voters vote as a bloc against Black candidates and when a small enough majority-minority district or districts can be drawn so that minorities have a good chance to elect their chosen candidates.

The Supreme Court intervened in the case before any new maps were completed.

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McClendon rejects the idea that the maps were gerrymandered and argues that gerrymandering is subject to interpretation.

"I say gerrymandering is like beauty. It's in the eye of the beholder. If it's my district and you didn't draw it like I wanted it drawn, that's gerrymandering. But if you draw me a district that I'm really happy with, that's not gerrymandering. That's a fair district."

McClendon says the redistricting process is fair, because any state lawmakers who want to can comment on the map — and they are the ones who vote on it.

He also says there isn't much guidance from the federal government on what exactly makes for an equitable map.

"One of the difficulties we have, the courts have never told us what is a safe percentage to put in a district to allow someone in a minority district – they've never given us a guideline," McClendon says. "Is it 55%? Is it 49 1/2? Is it 51? It's pretty hard to do that and assure that you're going to get minority representation."

Terri Sewell says her district is packed with Black voters

Terri Sewell has represented the 7th District since 2011. She says Black voters have been packed in her district.
/ Andi Rice for NPR
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Andi Rice for NPR
Terri Sewell has represented the 7th District since 2011. She says Black voters have been packed in her district.

The new map continues what had been the case previously, with Black voters heavily represented in the 7th District, which includes heavily Black portions of Birmingham and Montgomery as well as rural parts of the Black Belt.

The 7th District is now about 56% Black. Some proposals, including one from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, demonstrate a way to reconfigure the lines so that Black voters would be a few percentage points lower in the 7th but close to or slightly more than 50% in another.

Terri Sewell, a Democrat, has represented the 7th since 2011. She says that the maps crowd Black voters into her district and then spread them out across others, weakening their ability to be a sizable influence in any other single district.

"Packing my district means that my other colleagues don't have to even listen to the issues and concerns of African Americans in their district," she says. "And that's not fair. It's about voter dilution, is what it is."

An elections official says: just move

Alabama's Republican secretary of state, John Merrill, says those upset at being the minority in a district should simply move.
/ Andi Rice for NPR
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Andi Rice for NPR
Alabama's Republican secretary of state, John Merrill, says those upset at being the minority in a district should simply move.

Alabama's Republican secretary of state, John Merrill, was not involved in drawing the maps. But he's responsible for running elections. He says those upset at being the minority in a district should simply move.

"People get to move where they choose to in our state," he says. "So if you live where you want, then you get to vote for the people that are in that district. That's the way the process works."

That idea, of course, requires people being potentially willing to move every 10 years if the district changes when new districts are drawn.

Milligan also rejects the idea of moving.

"This is where I grew up," he says. He has a reverence for Montgomery's history in the civil rights movement.

"It's home. And I think I just have this interest in wanting to move the needle forward and want to be disruptive enough to buy my kids some time should they choose to stay here."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Kira Wakeam
Tinbete Ermyas
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.