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Alabama may soon have a U.S. House delegation that more closely matches its diversity

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Alabama could soon have a U.S. House delegation that more closely matches the diversity of its population after a lawsuit challenged its congressional map. Tomorrow, Democrats and Republicans will hold runoff elections to decide who will be on the ballot this November in the newly drawn 2nd Congressional District. NPR's Stephen Fowler has more.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alabama's congressional map discriminated against Black voters, the remedy was straightforward - draw new boundaries that create a second opportunity for those voters to elect a candidate of their choice. But what does representation actually mean?

SHALELA DOWDY: It means a seat at the table. It means that we can expect our needs and our wants to be taken into consideration when bills are being introduced and voted upon.

FOWLER: That's Shalela Dowdy, a Black, Mobile-based voting rights organizer. Dowdy is also one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that challenged Alabama's congressional redistricting and is now working to educate voters on how the changed lines affect them and not take this opportunity for granted.

DOWDY: I'm not celebrating because I know that there's work that still needs to be done.

FOWLER: That work includes getting people to show up in November to vote for their new member of Congress, people like LaTonya Stallworth (ph), who understands the impact representation, or the lack thereof, can have.

LATONYA STALLWORTH: It means a lot to me because I feel like we need to have a voice in there, somebody that stands up for our district, for us, that knows our struggles and what we've been through. So it's very important to me.

FOWLER: For much of Alabama's history, Black people like Dowdy and Stallworth in places like Mobile had their voices silenced by racist voting laws and discriminatory practices that barred them from voting or diluted their power when they could vote. But getting better representation is more than just voting for someone who looks like you, Dowdy says.

DOWDY: I am a resident of Alabama and I'm not familiar with Huntsville. I don't know the ins and outs of Birmingham. And so when you are of that community and you have those connections, you're able to better serve those people.

FOWLER: One of the two Democrats in the runoff lives in a completely different part of the state than the new 2nd District that sprawls across south Alabama from Mobile to Montgomery, with the Black Belt in between.

JOSEPH BAGLEY: When you look at the Black Belt and cities like Montgomery and Mobile, what we see is deep-rooted historical connections of migration, of experiencing the fight for voting rights and for school desegregation.

FOWLER: That's Joseph Bagley, a professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College and author of a book on the history of school desegregation in Alabama. The precedent set in the Alabama case has influenced representation for Black voters in other states, Bagley says.

BAGLEY: What we're going to see moving forward is continuing attempts by Black plaintiffs and brown plaintiffs to, you know, remedy what they see as a violation of their ability to elect the candidates that they want.

FOWLER: But since the Supreme Court decision, there have been mixed results. In Louisiana, lawmakers have created an additional opportunity for Black voters to gain representation in the U.S. House and, in turn, likely elect a Democrat. But in Georgia, Republicans were able to drastically increase the number of Black districts on paper but keep the partisan makeup the same. And even in Alabama, the years-long fight for representation isn't over and isn't guaranteed to last, Dowdy says.

DOWDY: What people need to realize is that, you know, what you see as a win could be a win on surface level, and that there are still people doing the work behind the scenes.

FOWLER: That includes preparing for another trial over the boundary lines next February, but first, it's getting voters to the polls for the new district's primary runoffs on Tuesday.

Stephen Fowler, NPR News, Mobile, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "BOWEN ISLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.