Black caucus critical of districts

Published 9:58 pm Thursday, April 27, 2017

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama lawmakers have begun redrawing legislative districts that federal judges have ruled were gerrymandered along racial lines, but the House Black Caucus chairman accused Republicans on Thursday of making only minimal changes in order to maintain “white supremacy.”

The GOP-controlled Legislative Reapportionment Committee recently presented a new map that awaits debate in coming weeks. The committee chairman said the proposal corrects problems found by the courts and complies with other U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

But the House black caucus chairman, Rep. John Knight, predicted the GOP map could land Alabama back in federal court unless it’s revised ahead of the 2018 elections. Federal judges tossed out 12 districts in January, saying the GOP-controlled Legislature improperly made race a predominant factor as they redrew district boundaries to reflect population changes. The ruling came after the Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference challenged the districts, arguing African-American voters were “stacked and packed” into designated minority districts to make neighboring districts whiter and more Republican.

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Knight said the new proposal still splits up counties and communities with the unconstitutional goal of diluting the influence of African-American voters.

“This plan is designed to maintain the concept of white supremacy,” said Knight, D-Montgomery. “They’re going back to what the court has considered an unconstitutional plan and tried to make very minimal modifications.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, when it sent the plan back for lower court review, said it appeared Alabama took a position of prioritizing racial targets in drawing districts.

The number of majority minority legislative district reflects the state’s minority population. But lawmakers who challenged the plan in court argued that an overreliance on race in drawing lines to pack minority voters into certain districts limited their ability to influence elections anywhere else in the state.

Reapportionment Committee Chairman Gerald Dial said the proposed new map “100 percent” fixes the problems found by the court. Dial said lawmakers also tried to comply with a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a similar Virginia redistricting case and tried to avoid splitting counties. The lines of about 70 of the 140 legislative districts are shuffled under the new plan.

“We think we’ve got a plan that goes as far as we can get to meeting the requirements,” Dial said. “We’ve worked very closely with the plaintiffs.”

Dial said fewer counties and voting precincts were split under the proposed map and maintains the number of majority black districts in the Legislature. He also says it allows a two percent or less population difference between districts. When Democrats held the legislative majority, they allowed a wider variance between districts, a move that Republicans argued was allowed to sprinkle out Democrats’ most reliable voting bloc, African Americans, to try to elect more Democrats.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon defended the proposal, but said it could change as it is debated.

“The issue is not about black and white. It’s about Alabama voters. It’s about honoring the court’s request, the orders they sent down to us,” McCutcheon said.

One sticking point is Jefferson County, home to the state’s largest city, Birmingham, which is majority black and the focus of partisan disputes over legislation impacting local governments.

Democrats want an even number of Democrats and Republicans in the Jefferson County delegation. The Republican map, however, creates districts that would most likely elect four Republicans and three Democrats. The current split is five Republicans and three Democrats.

“I’m in total disagreement with it, and I’ve expressed that,” said Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham.

Dial said some counties had to be split so each district would represent roughly equal populations. Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature, limiting Democratic moves to force changes to the map. However, they could continue to fight the plan in court. Dial said they have promised the court they will have a map finished by May 25.