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Opinion | Reapportionment and gerrymandering

“Gerrymandering is not nearly as blatantly overtly partisan as in past times.”

An Alabama legislative district map.

Hopefully, you participated in the Census last year. It is vitally important for each state that every person is counted.

One of the first premises set out by our nation’s founding fathers is that there be a Census taken every 10 years. The reason for the United States census is to determine how many seats each state is appropriated in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is based on the democratic principle of one man, one vote. Each state shall be equally represented based on the number of people they have within their state borders.

The power to draw the congressional lines rests with the state Legislature. For that reason, there was a lot of time and money spent by the national political parties to capture the majority of seats in the swing state legislative bodies. The pen to draw the lines is in the hands of the majority party. In Alabama, that is overwhelmingly Republican. Therefore, you can rest assured that congressional lines in the Heart of Dixie will be favorable toward the GOP’s six-to-one control.

Indeed, this reapportionment pencil has the same application for the legislators’ own districts. These preferential partisan parameters of districts are generally referred to as gerrymandering. Dictionaries define the word “gerrymander” as “to divide a state, country or city limits into voting districts to give unfair advantage to one party in elections.”

This is a pretty apt and succinct description of gerrymandering. The word was derived from an 1812 journalist’s evaluation of a Massachusetts reapportionment map and lines that looked like a salamander. The governor of Massachusetts, who developed the salamander district, was named Gerry. Thus, the term gerrymander.

In bygone days, gerrymandering was bold, overt and racist. The courts have curtailed racist boundaries. So gerrymandering is not nearly as blatantly overtly partisan as in past times.

Alabama’s 1901 constitution is as archaic as any in the nation. It has contributed to the poor image that persists today regarding our racist past. However, much of the damage was done during the 1960s. I had the opportunity to serve as a page in the state Legislature when I was a boy. It was quite a learning experience. The older men, who were senators and House members, would visit with the pages and tutor us on the rules and nuances of parliamentary procedures.

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One day, I was looking around the House, and it occurred to me that the urban areas and especially North Alabama were vastly underrepresented. As a boy, I knew that the Birmingham area was home to about 20 percent of the state’s population, but they certainly did not have a fifth of the House members. The same was true of Huntsville and other larger cities in North Alabama.

The rural and Black Belt counties were enjoying the power that had been granted them by the 1901 constitution. The state Legislature was very malapportioned as late as the 1960s. It was so severely imbalanced that it was almost comical.

The Legislature had simply ignored the constitutional mandate to reapportion itself every 10 years. It was not until 1974 that the courts finally intervened and made the Legislature reapportion itself. The federal courts not only mandated the reapportionment but also eventually had to draw the lines and districts. This federal court intervention gave African Americans representation in the Legislature for the first time. Today, about 25 percent of the seats are held by African Americans. The reapportionment also gave fair and equitable representation to the urban areas of North Alabama.

A cursory look at the legislative chambers today reveals that the majority of legislators are from Birmingham north because that is where the people live. You will see that trend become more accentuated when the lines are drawn this year. The population figures will reveal that North Alabama is where the growth is in the state.

It will be interesting to see how the lines are drawn for the next decade. There will be a little political gerrymandering, but not like in the past years.

It was thought that the 2020 Census figures would be available for legislators by January. However, it may now be June, which could delay this year’s reapportionment session and in turn delay the 2022 election primaries.

See you next week.

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Written By

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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