Why does my Congressional district look like a hammerhead shark?

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill published an opinion piece in the “The Gadsden Times” on March 2, responding to a column written by John Gordon in “The Tuscaloosa News” on February 27. Mr. Gordon’s column decried several forms of voter suppression, including gerrymandering, which he defined correctly as, “the process by which incumbents and the party in power draw district lines for elective offices to ensure they keep their positions and stay in power.” Secretary Merrill repeated the definition, but his piece did not address gerrymandering at all.

In fact, gerrymandering is a voter suppression tool that is very effective in Alabama today. It can misrepresent the electorate and result in strangely shaped congressional and legislative districts, such as Alabama’s 6th and 7th Congressional districts. During redistricting, usually following a U.S. Census, gerrymandering in our state either packs a concentration of Democratic voters into as few districts as possible to limit their influence on surrounding areas or it divides them up and disperses them into surrounding Republican areas, again to limit their influence. In the case of a very large concentration of traditionally Democratic voters, such as in Alabama’s Black Belt, “packing” results in a few overwhelmingly Democratic districts. In the case of an isolated concentration of Democratic voters, for example in Huntsville’s “blue dot” in the middle of “red” Madison County, “cracking,” (division and dispersal into surrounding Republican areas) results in no Democratic state Senate seats in the county. In Alabama’s 2018 election, approximately 40% of voters voted Democratic, as evidenced by votes for such statewide offices as governor. Democrats got only about 14% of Congressional seats and 28% of state legislative seats, however.

Regardless of the political party in power, the effectiveness of these techniques is obvious. The problem would be the same if the Democratic Party were dominant in Alabama. In addition to creating skewed results, gerrymandering corrupts our political system by creating “safe” seats for whomever drew the district lines, regardless of party affiliation. When incumbents of either party enjoy safe seats, their incentive to respond to constituents is gone since they do not have to worry about re-election. In many gerrymandered districts, the opposing party does not even mount a challenge. With many voters not seeing a choice, turnout falls, especially in elections with no significant statewide races. Thus the votes are suppressed, by making them unable to effect change, and the voters are suppressed, by making their votes pointless.

The League of Women Voters of the U.S., a non-partisan group with members of all races and genders, is conducting a “People-Powered Fair Maps” Campaign supporting state and federal initiatives for non-partisan, independent redistricting for state and federal elective offices. The League also supports the congressional legislation known as HR 1, the “For the People Act,” which would impose independent, non-partisan redistricting upon all states that do not already have it. And finally, the League supports HR 4, an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that effectively bans any form of racial gerrymandering in all U.S states and political jurisdictions, and was introduced by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-AL. Both of these bills have passed the House of Representatives and await committee action in the Senate.

For one hundred years, the League of Women Voters has pushed to encourage voter turnout in hopes that participation in our nation’s democracy will improve and invigorate our system of government. This can be a challenge when a lot of people see voting as just another “rigged game,” especially when they see politicians sorting voters into districts to ensure maximum political advantage. It’s time to set aside the toxic consequences of our current methods of drawing district lines. It’s time to empower voters and defend democracy. Alabama needs non-partisan, independent redistricting.

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The League of Women Voters of Alabama, a nonpartisan political organization, does not support or oppose political parties or candidates. The League of Women Voters of Alabama encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For additional information on current programs, please visit our website at www.lwval.org.