Now that proposed redistricting plans have been signed by Gov. Robert Bentley, Republicans and Democrats wait to see if the proposals are approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
Republicans claim the new lines are fair, while Democrats accuse GOP leaders of gerrymandering districts and shrinking minority influence. Party leaders say a lawsuit could be imminent, depending on the Justice Department’s decision.
“We’ve been working with counsel to file suit if we need to,” said Bradley Davidson, executive director for the Alabama Democratic Party. “We thought our plans were better and didn’t dilute minority influence, split up counties or draw voters out of their districts. The chairmen of the committees didn’t seem to care what people had to say.”
The reapportionment proceedings were chaired by Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville and Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville. Plans they presented added two more House members and one more Senate member. However, Rep. Dan Williams, R-Athens, will be the only one of the eight who lives in Limestone County.
Republican Reps. Micky Hammon and Mac McCutcheon, who also represent portions of Limestone County, reside in Morgan and Madison counties, respectively. Republican Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, who represents east-central Limestone County, lives in Madison. Republican Sen. Arthur Orr, who represents southern Limestone, lives in Morgan County.
The House proposal adds Rep. Lynn Greer, R-2nd from Lauderdale County and Rep. Phil Williams, R-6th from Madison County. The Senate plan moves the district of Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, from Lauderdale County through Limestone and into the city limits of Huntsville.
Davidson said it would not be impossible for her to win re-election in 2014 when the new lines go into effect, but it would be difficult.
“It was (the reapportionment committees’) intention to make it impossible for white Democrats to be re-elected,” Davidson said.
Rep. Dan Williams said he had no problems working with Phil Williams or Greer. In the case of Irons, he said, redrawing her lines may put Limestone County voters in a unique position to elect a new senator. Dan Williams said recently he is considering challenging her in 2014.
“I think people will find out they will be well represented,” he said of the proposals.
Holtzclaw was the local lawmaker with the most to lose, as his district had grown to 180,000 people since the last census count. Limestone County grew at a rate of more than 25 percent since 2000, making it the 59th fastest-growing county in the nation according to census data.
Currently, Holtzclaw’s boundary is the state line to the north, Jordan Lane to the east and Lauderdale County to the west. His southern boundary ends near Tanner, which is where Orr’s begins.
Because of the growth in western Madison and eastern Limestone, Holtzclaw had to give up 45,000 voters, including the city of Athens. However, he said it was important to him not to split the city up. To that end, his western boundary is now the eastern city limits.
“For me to maintain minority representation, I would have had to split up communities,” he said. “It was not healthy for the city and we wanted Athens to have its own representation. When you work as hard as we did over a 14-month campaign, you don’t want to lose anybody.”
A lesson on representation
Local leaders opposed to the new plans, including Mayor Ronnie Marks and Sheriff Mike Blakely, have expressed concern over how more representation will affect the outcome of local legislation that could help the county.
Dr. Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University, said representation boils down to more than just who represents what piece of the county. He said committee assignments and leadership roles also play a factor.
He believes a county cannot be ignored in the decision-making process by any lawmaker who has one-third or more of the voters in his or her district from that county, but said further divisions could minimize influence.
Brown offered up an example of an imaginary county with 150,000 residents. He presented three options, including one senator representing one county or district. Or, he said, the county could be divided into two districts, with each senator representing 75,000 voters each. The third option, he said, could be to divide the county into four parts, with each senator representing 37,500 voters.
Based on this scenario, Brown said, the best option would be option two, because the county would have a bigger influence with two voices as opposed to one. The worst option, he said, would be the one with four senators because each senator would not have one-third or more of the vote.
“If I am a representative or senator, I might get politically nervous about ignoring or alienating one-third or more of my constituents on any issue,” he said. “But, if a county is only one-fourth or less of my district, that county might start to be a much smaller dot on my political radar screen.”
Brown said perhaps the best way a county can remain influential in Montgomery is by having residents, leaders and political activists donate to political campaigns. He said even if a lawmaker represents only 15 percent of the county but received 50 percent of his or her campaign funds from that district, those contributors gain a special place in the politician’s “political psyche.”
“Legislators will remember not merely where the votes are, but where the campaign dollars came from as well,” he said.
All is fair?
Republicans say the lines were redrawn in accordance with not only the 2000 census figures, but the U.S. Voter Rights Act, which ensures black voters have adequate influence within each district. Jeremy King, spokesman for Gov. Robert Bentley, said redistricting was based on the concept of “one person, one vote,” which gives people equal representation by making sure their vote counts as much as anyone else’s.
The method of achieving this, he said, is to ensure the population of all districts is roughly the same. Under Justice Department guidelines, the variance between the districts cannot be greater than 5 percent.
King said district lines will never be perfect, but the plan does a better job of giving individuals an equal voice in Montgomery. He said the governor’s office encourages citizens and lawmakers to get to know one another and remain engaged in the legislative process.
“We believe the Alabama Legislature has crafted a plan that balances population among all districts while also preserving majority-minority districts to ensure all voices are heard,” he said, adding that active voter involvement “is also one of the best ways to ensure proper representation in Montgomery.”
Davidson said the new plans represented a double-whammy for the Shoals area, which already saw new divides during U.S. congressional reapportionment. He described the public hearings as “a sham,” and said Republicans relied on consultants from outside Alabama.
“It was a different experience than what we were used to,” he said. “This is not the same process we saw 10 years ago.”