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Gerrymandering reckoning in Alabama where the federal courts support voting rights for Black Americans

The biggest threat to our representative democracy is not poll taxes or other active suppression of voting rights, but sophisticated fiddling with district maps and other seemingly mundane mechanics to amplify some citizens’ voices and squelch others. Fortunately, though the Supreme Court has largely thrown up its hands in the face of increasingly complicated gerrymandering schemes in which politicians choose their voters and not the other way around, especially egregious examples of the black art remain subject to judicial scrutiny and invalidation.

Such is the case in Alabama, where 27% of the population is Black, and inclined to vote for Democrats. The Republican-controlled state legislature in Montgomery created districts in which Black people comprise a majority in just one out of seven congressional districts, a classic example of packing and therefore diluting the influence of a group that, in the Deep South especially, has historically had roadblock after roadblock thrown in their path, both before and after the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In June, upholding a lower-court injunction that stopped those maps as a racial gerrymander, the U.S. Supreme Court — in a decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts — ruled that “the extensive record in these cases supports the District Court’s conclusion that plaintiffs’ [Voting Rights Act Section 2] claim was likely to succeed,” while finding “unpersuasive the state’s argument that plaintiffs’ maps were not reasonably configured.”

And so it was back to the drawing board for the legislature — which responded with a new plan that was the line-drawing equivalent of an outstretched middle finger. Rather than creating a second district with at least “something quite close to” a Black majority, as ordered by the courts, lawmakers upped one district’s composition from 30% to 40% Black — and reduced the majority-Black district’s composition from 55% to 51% Black. If that represents compliance, Nick Saban is just a humble Pop Warner coach.

So Monday, a panel of three federal judges rejected the new maps, saying “we are deeply troubled that the State enacted a map that the State readily admits does not provide the remedy we said federal law requires” — adding, “We are not aware of any other case in which a state legislature — faced with a federal court order declaring that its electoral plan unlawfully dilutes minority votes and requiring a plan that provides an additional opportunity district — responded with a plan that the state concedes does not provide that district.” For those keeping score, the three judges signing off on the ruling are Judge Stanley Marcus, Anna Manasco and Terry Moorer. Marcus is a nominee of Bill Clinton. Manasco and Moorer were nominated by Donald J. Trump.

Putting teeth into their decision, the judges assigned court-appointed experts to draw three potential maps, each of which must include two districts where Black voters have a realistic opportunity of electing their preferred candidate. Good.

Gerrymandering is a bipartisan scourge — we’ve spilled lots of ink taking New York’s left-leaning Legislature to task for violating our own state Constitution’s carefully prescribed procedures as they try to rig the game to help Democrats and incumbents. But it’s hard to get more egregious than this. As Neil Young asked, “What are you doing, Alabama?”

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