(CN) – From the night riders of Reconstruction to a 1901 constitutional convention that instituted a poll tax and a literary test for the expressed purpose of disenfranchising black voters, Alabama has a long history of racial voter suppression.
It came to a head on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, as police gassed and beat hundreds of people marching for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Washington reacted by passing the Voting Rights Act.
Now, a trial scheduled to begin Monday in Birmingham will determine whether Alabama racially gerrymandered areas with large numbers of black voters in 2011 – specifically, the 7th Congressional District and three surrounding districts.
The 7th District is currently represented by Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell and covers some of the sites of the tensest moments of the civil rights era – Selma as well as parts of Birmingham and Montgomery.
The plaintiffs in the case believe that instead of one congressional seat made up of majority-minority voters, the Alabama Legislature could have created two congressional districts where most voters are nonwhite. But instead, it packed black voters into the 7th District and diluted other black votes by distributing them across three other districts in violation of the Voting Rights Act, they claim.
Eight black voters led by LaKeisha Chestnut filed the lawsuit in June 2018. They are represented by the firm Perkins Coie, which did not return a request for comment.
Chief U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre, a George W. Bush appointee, has already said that she would not be considering injunctive relief that would have prevented Alabama from using the current voting map in the 2020 elections.
The plaintiffs say the racial voter suppression continues in Alabama. For instance, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act through its 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the state announced it was going to be implementing new voter ID rules. It then shut down 31 Department of Motor Vehicles offices across the state, making it more difficult for black voters to meet the requirements to vote, according to the lawsuit.
Furthermore, compared to white residents, the approximately 27% of Alabamans who are black face higher rates of infant mortality and unemployment and are less likely to own a home.
“These socio-economic disadvantages hinder African Americans’ ability to participate effectively in the political process. The effects of the history of de facto and de jure segregation in all realms of life—from transportation, to education, criminal justice, and business ownership—are still clearly visible in Alabama and continue to impact African Americans’ access to the franchise,” the amended complaint states.
However, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, disputes that what the plaintiffs want is either possible or even worth pursuing.
First, he argues the four proposed congressional maps that the plaintiffs’ experts drew are racial gerrymanders themselves and would be unconstitutional if enacted.
Furthermore, after the 2020 census the congressional maps will be redrawn and the count may call for completely different maps. A declaration that the 2011 congressional map was racially gerrymandered would not help the plaintiffs, he argued.
“Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act did not require Alabama to draw as many majority-minority districts as it possibly could in its 2011 congressional plan,” Merrill’s pretrial brief states. “The evidence in this case will show that plaintiffs’ illustrative plans are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that break up longstanding communities of interest in order to connect distant voters who have nothing in common except for race.”
The state argues the current congressional districts are drawn in such a way that each one represents a section of the state culturally and economically distinct from each other. Counties in the 1st Congressional District rely on shipping and fishing of the Gulf Coast, for example, while the Wiregrass region of the 2nd District is populated with military bases and farms.
“Plaintiffs essentially want to put Alabama back under the failed ‘max-black’ policies of the 1990s, requiring Alabama to draw a second majority-black district even if it requires racial gerrymandering and a disregard of communities of interest. That is not the law,” the brief states. “Alabama’s ability to draw a second majority-minority district in 2021 will depend on the new census numbers and new conditions, not a judgment concerning what Alabama should have done under the very different conditions that existed in 2011.”
The Alabama Attorney General’s Office declined a request for comment.
The plaintiffs fired back in their own pretrial brief. The candidates that black voters backed in wide numbers handily won the race for the 7th District by more than 45 percentage points from 2002 to 2010. Despite the wide margins, the 2011 redistricting plan added more black voters to the district, increasing the black voting age population to 60.91%.
The four districts proposed by the plaintiffs would include black voting age populations ranging from 50.34% to 51.95%. They say the black voters in those areas share a common history rooted in antebellum enslavement in the agriculturally rich black belt.
Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, said the trial playing out in the federal courthouse in Birmingham is an unusual one.
“I don't know if I've seen it before where a court has taken injunctive relief off the table and the entire case hinges on potential declaratory judgment,” Rudensky said. “But it doesn't mean the case is inconsequential by any stretch.”
If the judge rules the 7th District was racially gerrymandered, activists hoping to revive parts of the Voting Rights Act stuck down by Shelby County v. Holder will use the ruling as evidence to bolster their arguments. And if the 2020 census reveals a count similar to that of 2010, the ruling may help guide the final shape of the district.
The bench trial is expected to last five days.