On Jan. 25, the Auburn City Council voted on a new redistricting plan based on the results of the 2020 census. The new plan passed with a 7-2 majority vote.
One local organization was in strict opposition to the new plan proposed by the City Council. The local branch of the NAACP proposed an alternate plan that they believe better represents the people of Auburn.
Since the 2010 census, the minority population in Auburn has grown from 26.5% to roughly 37% of the total population. Lee County NAACP Branch 5038 saw this as an opportunity to create a second majority-minority ward, in which one racial minority group makes up 50% or more of that ward's population.
Currently, there is only one racial minority representative in the City Council, Connie Fitch Taylor of Ward 1.
“We employed a person who is an expert in drawing maps, and we came up with a proof of concept map that did illustrate that you can have at least two majority-minority wards,” said Billy Allen, president of Lee County NAACP.
In the NAACP’s proposed plan, the second coalition ward would be Ward 6. Ward 1 is currently the only majority-minority ward.
Based on a map of Auburn demographics, there are large concentrations of minority residents in certain areas. By drawing the borders slightly differently from how the City Council drew them it is very possible to keep these minority populations in one ward together so as not to dilute the minority vote.
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At first, the NAACP was very eager to take a collaborative approach with the City Council.
“We wanted to partner with them, we tried to partner with them but we never got to a point where we could do that,” Allen said.
Elizabeth Hill of Lee County NAACP states that they were never given a direct reason or explanation as to why the City Council could not add a second majority-minority ward.
“I don’t think we ever heard an answer to that question from them,” Hill said. “The way we saw the data, we saw the opportunity for two minority districts the City looked at the data and saw something different and decided to go a different path.”
The NAACP hired Tabitha Isner and Robert Avery, two demographic and redistricting consultants, that looked at the maps proposed by the City and by the NAACP.
Both of the consultants said that the NAACP map was a legal option that the City Council could take. Avery said that most city councils would have jumped at the opportunity to have two coalition districts.
The NAACP not only disagrees with the Council's proposal but also how the City handled the entire situation.
“Prior to drawing the map, I think they need to have more involvement from stakeholders, citizens of Auburn, as well as the residents of Auburn," Allen said. "There should be more involvement from the people of Auburn before the map is finished. The second thing is they should also be a little more transparent about the process, making sure that they do collaborate with people after the map is drawn too.”
The census only happens once every 10 years and impacts residents of Auburn.
“I don’t think it’s that hard to do this," Hill said. "Most of the Council people host ward meetings, so last summer when you knew the census data was coming out you could have hosted a ward meeting, had a presentation ... explaining the process. The City hosted these open houses, and very few people showed up because they don't know what the process is.”
After the City Council's proposed redistricting plan was passed with a 7-2 majority vote, they received pushback from concerned residents and the NAACP.
Allen detailed an action plan from the NAACP for the August 2022 municipal elections.
“The first thing is to consult with our legal defense for direction and guidance to move forward, and that is in the process now," Allen said. "The second part is during the election campaign period, the NAACP Lee County branch and the state conference will be very active in that process, very active."
The City claims its redistricting map meets all of the federal guidelines and complies with section two of the Voting Rights Act. This section explicitly prohibits voting practices, including maps, that result in citizens being denied equal political power.
The City Council also claims to preserve "communities of interest" as well as the traditional cores of existing wards. Ensuring that Council incumbents remained in their current wards was also a factor when drawing the map.
In a statement from Mayor Ron Anders, he said that the City took the NAACP’s alternate approach into consideration and hired outside consultants to review the maps.
“First, I heard that our City Manager and her staff spent hundreds of hours evaluating the alternative map," Anders said. "This tells me that our staff, our mapping and districting experts, took the alternate map and public input seriously and gave it the time and consideration and respect that it deserved. The analysis showed that not only is there no evidence to support the functionality or cohesion of a second majority-minority district, but that it could damage the functioning Black majority-minority district that we have by diluting the Black vote in Ward 1 between the two wards.”
This seemed to be the City's major contention as to why they could not adopt the NAACP’s plan. The NAACP does not agree with this as they do not see how creating another majority-minority ward would prevent the reelection of the current minority representative since there has been such stark minority population growth within the last 10 years. The City did not go into any extensive detail as to why this is the case.
A local activist and Auburn University research professor, Kelli Thompson, expressed her disdain for the City's proposal and reluctance to adopt the NAACP's plan. Thompson saw this as an opportunity for the City to signal to the minority residents that they are valued. She also expressed her trust in the NAACP’s ability to represent minorities in the way they deserve to be represented.
“In my opinion, if I had to trust a panel of experts that know a thing or two about protecting, amplifying and advocating for minority voices, it would be an organization such as NAACP that has a several decades-long history of doing this,” Thompson said.
Thompson goes on to elaborate that Dorman Walker, who was hired by the City as an expert, has a history of assisting in redistricting processes that would later be found unconstitutional.
“The City has chosen an expert who has been proven to not respect racial minorities, the voice of racial minorities in the drawing of maps," Thompson said. "To me, it's a no-brainer that when it comes to centering the voices of minority folks, the NAACP has a record of it, and Dorman Walker does not.”
Thompson made it clear that the racial tension was present in the atmosphere in the last City Council meeting. Although the City's plan was passed, some residents, such as Thompson, are not satisfied to simply accept these results.
“It’s not over yet because the folks at the table have made it clear that if the City goes forward with the map that the City wanted that lawsuits are coming,” Thompson said.
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