Trial Begins in Alabama Over Claims of Racially Gerrymandered Election Districts

The Alabama State House, which houses the Alabama Legislature. (Chris Pruitt via Wikipedia)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – Chief Judge Karon Bowdre wasted no time Monday. The pretrial briefs in the trial to determine whether Alabama’s 7th Congressional District was racially gerrymandered were excellent, she said, and she was familiar with the issues.

Call the first witness, the George W. Bush appointee told the attorneys of Perkins Coie, who are representing 10 plaintiffs suing Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill. The plaintiffs contend the state Legislature packed black voters into the district and diluted other black votes by distributing them across three other districts. 

William Cooper – wearing a short, grey mustache, a white shirt, a white and grey tie and brown shoes – took to the stand to explain four congressional district maps he created for the plaintiffs using GIS mapping software and U.S. Census data. And like that, the case dove headfirst into the minutiae of political maps and socioeconomic data.

The plaintiffs are hoping Bowdre will make a declaration that Alabama’s Congressional map created in 2011 violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The state, the plaintiffs argue, could have created another congressional district made up of majority black voters.

Just outside the courtroom, the windows from the eighth floor of the Hugo L. Black U.S. Courthouse framed the green trees of Kelly Ingram Park – the site of civil rights demonstrations and confrontations in the 1960s – and beyond that, the red domes of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bombing killed four black girls and spurred the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Portions of the cities of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery all sit in the 7th District.

Alabama redrew its congressional map in 2011 after the 2010 census. Among the seven congressional seats Alabama has in Washington, D.C., only one – the 7th District – is represented by a black lawmaker: Democrat Terri Sewell.

Under questioning by Perkins Coie attorney Bruce Spiva, Cooper said the state’s 2011 congressional redistricting map placed about a third of the black population of the state in the 7th District, and three districts – districts one, two and three – had black voting-age populations ranging between 24% to 28% of the districts’ overall populations.

The populations in those three districts, Cooper said, was a “clear example” of cracking – or breaking up – pockets of voters in order to break up their voting power.

Altogether, the black populations in districts one, two and three totaled more than 575,000 – which could almost make up an entire congressional district.

Alabama used 2010 census data to draw a seven-district map for the state’s Board of Education districts. Two of those districts are minority-majority districts.

“It suggested to me that you could draw two out of seven majority black districts,” Cooper testified.

Over the past few years, Cooper said, the number of minority voters in Alabama has risen from 1.08 million, or 26.74% in the 1990 census to 1.575 million or 32.96% in the 2010 census.

Cooper said that in the 2020 census, Alabama is set to lose a congressional seat and, even then, there are ways to draw the map so that two of the six districts could be majority-minority districts.

However, after an objection, Bowdre said she was not considering Cooper’s proposed 2020 maps on what the census plan might include.

During the cross-examination of Cooper, Dorman Walker, an attorney with Balch and Bingham, pulled out a road map.

In the pretrial brief, the state argued that what the plaintiffs proposed was in and of itself racial gerrymandering.

“You put the majority of whites in district one, didn’t you?” Walker asked Cooper.

“Probably,” Cooper replied. He had testified that he considered several factors while drawing his four maps, attempting to lump together voters that had similar community interests, such as those that lived in the same county.

Walker also asked what kind of community interest Cooper was trying to preserve with his maps, specifically for the 1st District, which sits near Mobile.

It was the guidelines set forth by the state, Cooper replied: community interests, including racial, ethnic and historical similarities.

Walker’s questioning turned towards the lawmakers and politicians seeking to represent the 1st District, a district Cooper had drawn stretching from the southwestern end of the state to the eastern. Walker wanted to know how a politician would travel the district to meet voters, and he pulled out the map.

He asked Cooper to use an orange highlighter and trace the route a politician would need to take to travel the length of the 1st District he drew.

“This might not be the Google Map route and I’m nervous so I’m shaking,” Cooper explained.

On redirect, Spiva asked Cooper if there were other long districts in Alabama. The 5th District stretched across the northern border of Alabama with Tennessee. It took about a three hour trip by car to traverse it, Cooper testified.

Before the first day of the trial ended, one of the plaintiffs, Karen Jones, took to the stand. 

Jones sits on the Alabama State Democratic Executive Committee and has been a part of several community organizing efforts in Montgomery. She runs a nonprofit called Whom It Concerns Inc. and helps run voter education workshops.

Voting, she said, is “a sacred event for me, personally,” because of all the members of her community that shed blood and died for that right. As a voter in the 7th District, Jones votes for Sewell, who wins handily.

When Sewell does have a challenger, she wins with a ratio of three or four to one.

“We have her to represent the black issues and she’s fighting by herself,” Jones said.

Having another representative in a majority-minority district would give a second voice to issues that matter to black voters, Jones said.

Such issues, Jones said, include affordable health care, transportation, and lowering high electric bills. Jones spoke of disenfranchised black men who cannot get identification because of outstanding tickets, which means they cannot get jobs, pay child support and, as a result, face barriers to register to vote.

The trial is expected to run until Friday.

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