Carrie Levine

A case over Alabama’s political maps lays bare the ugliness of redistricting

Redistricting is supposed to be a way to ensure equitable representation. Americans adjust political boundaries at all levels to make sure districts are equal, population growth is accounted for, and everyone’s vote is meaningful. But in practice the process is a bare-knuckled no-holds-barred political mishegoss that would shatter anyone’s ideals.

This week’s federal court ruling in Alabama, after nearly three years of rancor, puts this in sharp relief.

In 2021, Black registered voters from Alabama sued the state over its political maps, alleging intentional discrimination and racial gerrymandering. Alabama lost the case. Federal judges ordered the state to create a second congressional district in which Black voters comprised a majority, or nearly so.

Alabama appealed and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state lost there, too — resoundingly.

The case then went back to the lower court, which gave state lawmakers time to call a special session and take another crack at drawing political maps complying with the court’s orders.

But the Alabama Legislature, once again, produced a map that didn’t create that second majority-Black district.

So here we are, more than three-and-a-half years into the 2020 redistricting cycle, and these voters, who already decisively won their case in the U.S. Supreme Court, are back in federal court, still trying to get a fair map in place before the 2024 election.

Alabama — like so many other states before it — is running out the clock.

After all, the 2022 election was conducted based on an illegal map in Alabama, one that denied Black voters the representation they were entitled to under the law. Similarly, Ohio used a map the state Supreme Court had declared illegal after a federal court decided the state was out of time to put a fair one in place. The wrangling has gone on so long there, advocates who brought the lawsuit this week moved to drop the litigation and leave the current map in place because of “the continued turmoil brought about by cycles of redrawn maps and ensuing litigation.”

There’s a redistricting trial underway over Georgia’s map and a challenge pending over Louisiana’s. A state judge just decided Florida’s map doesn’t comply with the state constitution. In Wisconsin, a shift in the makeup of the state Supreme Court has Republicans threatening to impeach a newly elected justice who has yet to hear a single case, in hopes of preserving Republican-drawn state legislative maps. And that’s just a partial list.

This isn’t the first time, certainly, that a redistricting cycle has gone into what Michael Li, senior counsel to the democracy program at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, describes as “extra innings.” But there are a lot of states still in flux, even if Alabama appears to stand out for sheer nerve.

And it matters.

Republicans narrowly won control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022, and small shifts — such as a second majority-Black congressional district in Alabama that’s likely to add a second Democrat to the state’s congressional delegation — could tip the balance next year.

It’s cynical, but it’s easy to see how that gives politicians a reason to drag out legal proceedings for as long as possible — and maybe keep a map in use for another election cycle, even if it’s eventually going to get thrown out.

“I think it can be disillusioning,” Li said. “People who are affected win things and then they don’t get them. It seems like it’s forever stalled in an appeal.”

The three-judge panel dealing with the Alabama case, all of whom were nominated by Republican presidents, including two by former President Donald Trump, clearly took note of the state’s intransigence in a 217-page order issued Tuesday.

“The State has explained that its position is that notwithstanding our order and the Supreme Court’s affirmance, the Legislature was not required to include an additional opportunity district in the 2023 Plan,” the judges wrote, sounding baffled at how, exactly, the state might have arrived at that particular conclusion.

“We discern no basis in federal law to accept a map the State admits falls short of this required remedy.”

The judges’ order, dotted with phrases such as “as we already said,” did not sound pleased. Far from it.

It’s clear Alabama’s legal strategy here isn’t landing, though the accompanying political strategy may be easier to understand. One state representative told the court that during the special session held earlier this year to draw a new map, he spoke with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican. McCarthy, he told the court, “was not asking us to do anything other than just keep in mind that he has a very tight majority.” State lawmakers may have, indeed, kept that in mind.

The judges wrote that they are “deeply troubled” by the state’s actions and “disturbed by the evidence” that even though “we have now said twice that this Voting Rights Act case is not close,” the state simply is not going to do what it’s been ordered to do.

“We are not aware of any other case in which a state legislature — faced with a federal court order declaring that its electoral plan unlawfully dilutes minority votes and requiring a plan that provides an additional opportunity district — responded with a plan that the state concedes does not provide that district,” the judges wrote.

Of course, as Li points out, evoking George Wallace and the South’s response to court orders to desegregate schools, there’s a long history of such recalcitrance (something also not lost on opinion columnists) and resisting orders from the federal government may be a sounder political strategy than a legal one.

The court is now appointing a special master and cartographer to draw a new map, since, as the judges note, election officials need one no later than early October.

For its part, Alabama has already appealed the order. The state attorney general issued a statement saying, against all available evidence, that “we strongly believe that the Legislature’s map complies with the Voting Rights Act.”

Alabama is also likely to appeal whatever map the court puts in place. Most experts expect the state to lose.

But the clock is ticking. And the Black voters who won in court have yet to win the representation federal courts found they’re entitled to have. So even though federal judges have made their position crystal clear, it’s hard to tell whether anyone is really winning here.

Alabama has a long history — as many states do — of discriminating against Black voters. In its Sunday edition on Aug. 24, 1902 — one year after the state adopted its new Jim Crow constitution — The Montgomery Advertiser published the following: “One of the great desires of the patriotic Alabamian is absolutely fair elections, primary and general. Under the new Constitution and the elimination of the negro this result is of easy accomplishment. The things that were done in the past which the necessities of the case may have pardoned is generally admitted, but now, with practically white suffrage only, there can be no excuse of cheating at the polls or manipulation after they close.”

From Votebeat Arizona:“I just hope it ends”: Maricopa election official shares emotional story as harasser sentenced to prison

From Votebeat Pennsylvania: Bill to move Pa.’s spring primary earlier would put time crunch on election officials

From Votebeat Texas: New law requires many Texas counties to add more polling places. In areas with few buildings and workers, that’s going to be hard.

Carrie Levine is Votebeat’s story editor and is based in Washington, D.C. She edits and frequently writes Votebeat’s national newsletter.Contact Carrie at

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Trump Appointee Is a Saudi Government Lobbyist

One of President Donald Trump’s newest appointees is a registered agent of Saudi Arabia earning hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby on the kingdom’s behalf, according to U.S. Department of Justice records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.

Key advisory body

The commission is essentially a part-time advisory body responsible for making final recommendations to the president of candidates for the prestigious White House fellowships, which President Lyndon B. Johnson created in 1964.

The candidates are usually accomplished professionals with sterling resumes. Fellows are typically given jobs in the White House and federal agencies. Past White House fellows include Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas and CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta.

Hohlt said he is one of 19 commissioners who met over a weekend this month to interview the fellowship candidates — the commission’s only formal duty annually.

Hohlt stresses he has never lobbied the Trump administration on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which has aggressively courted Trump since he became president in January.

“That is not my role,” Hohlt said.

What role, then, does he play?

According to Hohlt’s disclosures with the Department of Justice, he registered to lobby for Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry in October and “provides them with advice on legislative and public affairs strategies.” He disclosed no direct contacts with government officials on the Saudis’ behalf as of April 30, the date covered by the latest Department of Justice report.

Hohlt said he was largely brought in to offer advice on overarching strategy and how the legislative process works.

He did directly contact some congressional offices in late May and June regarding an arms sale, he said, and those contacts will be disclosed in his next disclosure report, as required.

Hohlt added that he’s working for the Saudis without a formal contract. If the Saudis asked him to lobby for something the Trump administration opposed, “I’d say I’m not going to work on it,” Hohlt said.

For example, he said, the administration was in favor of the arms deal.

Trump strikes deals with Saudis

Trump’s first foreign trip as president came in May, when he visited Saudi Arabia.

While there, Trump touted the “tremendous” deals he said he struck with the Saudis, including an expanded arms agreement valued at $100 billion. During elaborate ceremonies, the Saudis heaped plaudits. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir praised Trump and praised his “vision,” “strength” and “decisiveness.”

Hohlt said he disclosed his Saudi lobbying job to Trump officials during the vetting process before his appointment.

White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said she had “nothing to add” in response to questions from the Center for Public Integrity about Trump’s appointment of Hohlt, including whether the Trump administration was aware Hohlt worked as a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry.

Love referred the question of whether the administration was aware of Hohlt’s representation of the Saudis to the White House fellows office, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Upon taking office, Trump issued an executive order on ethics that included, among other things, a lifetime ban on executive branch appointees engaging in work that would require registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, among other restrictions on lobbyists.

The law, known as FARA, is the same law that mandates disclosure of Hohlt’s work for Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s executive order doesn’t apply to part-time appointees such as Hohlt. Nonetheless, some government ethics experts still say the appointment presents a jarring contrast with the president’s statements.

And despite Trump’s order, he has issued ethics waivers to lobbyists who have taken full-time positions with the administration, including, for example, Michael Catanzaro, a former energy company lobbyist who is now a special assistant to the president and adviser on energy policy. The waiver allows Catanzaro to participate in matters on which he lobbied.

Trump donor

Hohlt is a Trump donor. He contributed $2,700, to Trump’s campaign in August and $5,000 to Trump’s transition in September, the maximum amounts permitted. Those contributions came before he registered to represent Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry in October.

Nonetheless, “Appointing someone who is registered under FARA as doing work for Saudi Arabia does seem odd at a time when he’s made a very big deal about not having people leave the government and then do work where they have to register under FARA,” said Larry Noble, the general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign reform organization.

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, said, “There is truth to the slogan that personnel is policy. And so he’s appointing this lobbyist for Saudi Arabia to a commission that then recommends people for important positions.”

Hohlt also lobbies for numerous corporate clients. This year, he’s been registered to lobby on behalf of oil giant Chevron, the Motion Picture Association of America and a division of tobacco giant Altria, among others.

Asked about any potential conflict of interest, Hohlt pointed to the extremely part-time nature of his fellowship commission appointment.

“I guess I’m an old-fashioned lobbyist,” Hohlt said. “I know how to separate lobbying and not lobbying.”

This article was co-published by NBC News and Public Radio International.

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How a Trumped-Up Fundraiser With the First Family Imploded

A pay-to-play soiree offering the ultra-wealthy access to newly inaugurated President Donald Trump is unraveling — after the Center for Public Integrity on Monday revealed that Trump’s adult sons are registered directors of the new, Texas-based nonprofit organizing the event.

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