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Trial begins in challenge to congressional district map

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — African Americans make up more than a quarter of Alabama’s voting age population.

But only one of the state’s seven congressional districts is majority black.

A federal judge on Monday began a trial in a lawsuit that contends Alabama should have a second majority-black district and that the current map violates a section of the Voting Rights Act by depriving black voters of an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice to the U.S. House of Representatives. The state is disputing those claims and argues it would require gerrymandering to carve another district.

The case is part of a trio of lawsuits, filed in 2018 in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, on behalf of several black voters and backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The Alabama suit is the first to go to trial.

The Alabama suit claims the state’s 2011 congressional map illegally “packs” black voters into its sole majority African-American district, now represented by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, which stretches from Birmingham through Selma to Montgomery. The remaining African American population in central Alabama is divided into three districts where “they comprise an ineffectual political minority,” plaintiffs argue. The lawsuit contends that Alabama’s black population is large enough, and geographically compact enough, to form a second majority-minority district.

“What is wrong with the Alabama map is they have one majority-minority district — what we refer to as an opportunity district for African Americans — when they should have two,” said Marina Jenkins, litigation director for the National Redistricting Foundation.

“When they redrew the lines in 2011 they had an opportunity to create two districts that would be opportunity districts for the African American communities in Alabama, and instead of doing that they packed more than necessary into congressional district seven, Congresswoman Sewell’s district, in order to decrease the African American population in neighboring districts,” Jenkins said.

The current map will stay in place for next year’s elections, District Judge Karon Bowdre ruled. But if it is ruled illegal, Alabama couldn’t use it as the basis for drawing new lines in 2021 based on new Census data.

Alabama is arguing that the case is moot because the state could lose a congressional seat based on the new census numbers, which would require a wholesale redrawing of the map.

“A judgment declaring what Alabama should have done based on 2011 conditions will not determine what Alabama can or should do after a new census and after those conditions radically change with population shifts and, perhaps, even losing a congressional seat,” the state attorney general’s office wrote in a pretrial brief.

The state will argue that plaintiff’s proposed maps would break communities with common interests apart in order to draw another majority-minority district “based on nothing more than race and the unsavory assumption that black voters in Mobile and black voters in distant Montgomery, Macon, and Bullock Counties think alike and share the same interests simply because they are black.”

The trial is expected to last about a week.

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