In theory, redistricting is simple.
Every 10 years the United States must conduct a census, a count of every person categorized by cities, counties and states. The numbers from this once-a-decade count are then compared to the figures from the previous census. Then, representative districts — including those for city councils, statehouses, congressional districts and others — are compared and contrasted. How much has a district’s population enlarged? Or, did it shrink over 10 years?
Adjustments must be made. There are some basic rules for redistricting. The number of people in each district must be approximately the same. They should not split communities of interest. They must be compact and contiguous. In Alabama and other states where legal obstacles were once placed before black voters, the Justice Department must approve the redrawn district lines. States are barred from diluting the voting strength of racial minorities — either by packing (stuffing them into a single district) or cracking (make their proportion of a district insignificantly small). And the public gets an opportunity to weigh in on proposed districts, a right most citizens decline.
Last week in a session that ended around 3 a.m. Thursday, the Alabama Legislature approved new maps for the House and the Senate. The proposed redrawn districts await Gov. Robert Bentley’s signature.
While it’s simple in theory, redistricting in Alabama and elsewhere is usually contentious. How Alabama is divided into 35 Senate districts and 105 House districts is a big deal to political parties. Even decades after Alabama turned from Democratic-friendly to Republican-friendly, state Democrats held on to their majorities in the Legislature thanks in no small part to the power to draw legislative districts.
With Republicans now in control of both houses in Montgomery, it’s that party’s turn to shape the lines in its favor. No big surprise here. A central goal of majority parties is holding on to or even increasing their majority.
The outcry from Alabama Democrats in response to last week’s redistricting process was loud. White Democrats said the new districts made it virtually impossible for them to win a seat. Black Democrats claimed majority black districts were packed with racial minorities as a way to create Republican-heavy districts, particularly in the suburbs. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, a black Democrat from Birmingham, was critical of the plans, saying from the floor of the Senate: “Racist. Prejudiced. Racist. That’s what we’ve got going on in this state now. Alabama is going backwards, to the racist Ku Klux times.”
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, a Republican from Anniston, disputed claims by Smitherman and other Democrats that the state was moving backward.
“The racial talk is silly,” he told the Montgomery Advertiser. “Everybody in this chamber by and large gets along and works well together. The days of racism in my opinion in the state of Alabama are gone. I think we have been very fair this session.”
While we don’t doubt Marsh’s sincerity, it’s a darn difficult job to be fair in a process where winners have so much to gain and losers will most likely claim they were cheated no matter how evenhanded the procedure.
Of course, other fair methods exist. For instance, a bipartisan panel of good government advocates could handle the heavy lifting. These Alabamians could be nominated by Statehouse Democrats and Republicans and set about to do redraw House and Senate lines. The most important qualification for membership would be that each appointee must pledge to not run for the Legislature for at least 10 years.
These men and women could produce a plan, seek the public’s input through a heavily publicized campaign and then send it to the Legislature for final approval. Sure beats the current thumb-on-the-scales method of allowing legislators a big say in drawing their own districts.
It’s virtually impossible to take the politics out of what is essentially a political process. However, turning down the volume on partisanship — even slightly — looks mighty attractive right about now.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.