By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
There are many things about this country that make us great: our economy, our military and our people, to name a few. But perhaps our greatest accomplishment has been democracy. Democracy is our most precious and cherished blessing, and it is the foundation of our freedom.
Before America, kings who had absolute power ruled nations. While there are still some nations that suffer under dictators and other oppressive regimes, democracy has taken over most of the world. And in this country, it has allowed our nation to thrive and grow to become the world’s only super power.
As Americans, we have a fundamental birthright to control our government and determine who serves as our leaders. For more than two centuries, men and women have risked and sacrificed their lives to protect that right.
But in one House district, District 89, more than 200 Alabamians were denied this basic right. Not intentionally or maliciously, but because of the convoluted manner in which our new legislative districts were drawn.
Our districts, which are now being reviewed by the US Supreme Court because of the questionable manner in which they were gerrymandered, have no shortage of faults. But there are two main arguments that have fueled the debate: the “packing” of black voters into certain districts and the division of “communities of interests.”
Since the Civil Rights movement, Alabama has drawn its legislative districts with the goal of ensuring that African Americans held roughly 27 percent of legislative seats. To achieve this goal, the districts were drawn as minority-majority districts, meaning the majority of voters were black.
But under our new district lines, the legislature took this a step further by “packing” the districts represented by African American legislators with as many black voters as possible. Legislators again claimed the purpose of this was to ensure that an African American would be elected to represent that district. But African Americans were already representing these districts at their previous levels. There was no need to add black voters to these districts.
Clearly, increasing the numbers of black voters in these districts was not meant to preserve the number of seats represented by black legislators, but to dilute the influence of black voters in other districts that are not minority-majority but had a large percentage of black voters.
The second argument, and the one that is most relevant to what happened in District 89, has been that these districts divide “communities of interest.” Communities of interests can include counties, cities and towns. But most importantly, the new districts split voting precincts.
Splitting these communities dilutes their voice in government. For example, the more times a county is divided the less influence it will have with a particular legislator. This also causes problems when trying to get local bills passed, since local bills have to be signed off on by every member of the delegation. The more divided the county, the more legislators who have to approve of the legislation, even if that legislator only has a small portion of that county in his or her district.
In House District 89, poll workers at one of the split precincts unintentionally gave the wrong ballot to more than 200 voters. But even though it was an honest mistake, that mistake now means that those 200 voters will have to spend the next four years with a representative they did not vote for.
Making this situation even worse, the difference between the candidates in this race is less than 100 votes. Meaning, the voters who received the wrong ballot could have completely altered the outcome.
Joel Lee Williams, the Democratic candidate in the race, now has the right to contest the election. Whatever his decision, myself and the members of the House Democratic Caucus, will stand behind him. Either way, this unfortunate situation is a perfect example of why we need to throw out these convoluted legislative districts and let an unbiased court draw new ones.
No one honestly expects legislators not to gerrymander the districts. But the way in which state leaders have done so with these districts has result in at least one instance of Alabamians losing their right to elect their own representative. And the truth is these new districts have created a system that dilutes the voices of thousands of Alabamians.
I am thankful the U.S. Supreme Court felt compelled to intervene. I hope the court will take into their consideration the election in House District 89. It is a perfect example of why we need to throw out these districts and go back to the drawing board.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.