Alabama lawmakers, advocates lobby for two congressional districts with large Black voter bases

Advocates seek to draw two congressional districts where Black voters would make up more than 40% of the population in each

A group of Alabama residents and state lawmakers are advocating for changes to the state’s congressional map that would create two congressional districts representing a significant number of Black voters.

The drawing of the new district maps will begin this week, during the state’s special committee meeting. A hot topic for legislators, and one of the focal points of the meeting, will be the racial makeup of the congressional districts.

The southern state, which is nearly 27% Black, currently has one congressional district that is designed to make it highly likely that Black residents’ can elect a candidate of their choosing.

According to a lawsuit filed by two state senators and other voters in September, the current congressional map is unconstitutional racial gerrymandering because it forces most of the Black voters into District 7 and minimizes their influence in five other districts.

Flags fly at half-staff over the Alabama State Capitol where civil rights icon, former US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) lies in state on July 26, 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The new map would lower the percentages of Black voters in District 7, which has been represented by Black Democrats since 1992, and instead have a District 6 and 7, where Black voters would make up more than 40% of the population in each. The plaintiffs allege that having two districts would more accurately reflect and represent the nonwhite population of the state and urge mapmakers to keep counties, some of which are split due to congressional lines, within districts.

“We believe it would be much better and I think most Black citizens believe it would be much better if we had two districts that give Blacks the opportunity to elect a member of Congress, even if that means relying more on white crossover voting,” said James Blacksher, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Despite equal proportions of Black state legislators and the Black population in the state, only one of the seven members in the House of Representatives is Black. 

Lawmakers and advocates say that the disparities in representation stem from the congressional map created in 1992 and sustained after the 2010 census, which was designed to suppress Black voters and their influence on the state.

Alabama’s current map breaks county lines to force majority Black cities and areas into District 7. The congressional district is 64% Black voters and includes the city of Birmingham that lies in both Shelby and Jefferson Counties, which is nearly 70% Black, and the city of Montgomery that lies in Montgomery County, which is more than 60% Black.

The other congressional districts are 7% to 29% Black.

“With 2020 Census data, it is practicable to end the 1992 racial gerrymander and draw a seven-district Congressional plan without splitting a single county and with only minor population deviations,” the lawsuit states.

The group is asking for new congressional lines to be drawn using 2020 census data that will closely follow county lines.

The two lawmakers in the lawsuit — Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton and Sen. Rodger Smitherman — say that the current map “is malapportioned” to have a “single majority-black Congressional district and minimizing their influence in five majority-white districts.”

Advocacy groups have also been vocal about the need for change.

“There ought to be more than one congressional district where minorities have a chance of electing their choice,” said Kathy Jones, president of the League of Women Voters of Alabama. The group has been raising public awareness about the need for redistricting, which is required by each state with more than one representative every 10 years.

 “In the other six districts, there’s no way that they have that opportunity right now. That needs to change,” she added.

The three-fourths Republican-controlled Legislature still has the power to either make the changes to the map, which would result in them sending two Democrats to the house, or keep things similar and only account for the population changes.

Sen. Jim McClendon, co-chair of the Legislature’s reapportionment committee, expects the committee to approve four bills that will define each new map — one for the state House of Representatives, state Senate, state Board of Education districts and one for each of the congressional.

The state must pass a new redistricting plan before the 2022 election filing deadline.

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