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Redistricting public hearings start with requests not to split communities, gerrymander

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

During the first public hearing on reapportionment Wednesday, Alabamians asked the lawmakers redrawing voting districts not to split up communities of interests and keep counties whole in the new maps being created.

Some pushed for a pledge from GOP legislators not to gerrymander to their advantage the Congressional, state Senate and House, and board of education maps being redone with new 2020 census data.

“I will pledge to draw districts that comply with the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act,” Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, said during the first public hearing the reapportionment committee he co-chairs held Wednesday morning. 

Committee co-chair Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said he’d draw fair districts “that are representative of the population and stay in compliance with the many, many rules and regulations that control what we do and what will be approved by the court.”

The town hall at Drake State Community College in Huntsville was the first of about two dozen. Upcoming meetings can are listed on the Legislature’s website.

The public was able to gather in person for the hearing while lawmakers tuned in remotely from Montgomery. Committee attorney Dorman Walker, also in Montgomery, fielded most of the questions and comments.

Several speakers at the public hearing noted that Madison County, which now houses the state’s largest city, Huntsville, is represented by six state senators. Only two of them live in the county and residents said that dilutes their representation in Montgomery.

Dorman said avoiding keeping counties whole, or at least not split multiple times, would be a priority. There are 35 Senate districts and an ideal population would be 143,551, according to reapportionment information. In the 105-member House, a district’s ideal population would be 47,850.

The meeting also attracted those pushing their own agendas.

Dexter Strong, communications director for the Alabama Democratic Party, challenged the make-up of the committee asserting it should be non-partisan. He also asked the committee to consider why Black Alabamians might be suspicious of this process.

“At present right now, an entire group of white men can pass laws with a supermajority without a single Black vote,” Strong said.

Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Alabama Legislature.  The latest census numbers say Alabama is 69% white and 27% Black.

Walker said the reapportionment committee could not assign its duties to another committee and that would have to come through a change in law.

In 2016, after a lawsuit brought by the Legislative Black Caucus, a federal court ruled that 12 of Alabama’s 35 state Senate districts diluted the voting power of the African Americans by packing them into districts. Lawmakers were forced to redraw the maps again in 2017.

Walker said voting districts often have odd shapes because they’re based on census blocks, which have “no rhyme or reason to the way they’re shaped.” 

The public meetings are a chance for groups to submit their own proposed maps, which is what the League of Women Voters of Alabama did Wednesday. It offered Congressional districts that would allow for two districts, 6 and 7, that were at least 50% minority.

“It is your sacred duty to ensure that all communities of interest are maintained intact and that all communities regardless of race, background, ZIP code or income are fairly represented,” league president Kathy Jones said.

She said the congressional districts should be based on county lines.

“You cannot continue to racially gerrymander Alabama’s voting districts,” Jones said, speaking specifically of Congressional District 7, represented by the state’s lone Democrat in Congress.

Lawmakers for decades have drawn Alabama’s 7th district to maintain its majority-minority status, a legacy from the Voting Rights Act of 1965. According to the latest Census data, the district lost more than 13,000 residents since 2010 and will have to be drawn to pick up more than 53,000 residents to keep up with the growth of the other six districts.

Pringle earlier this week said he’s hopeful a special session on proposed maps can happen in late October or early November.

Candidates and incumbents are already campaigning for State House districts that may change. Walker said the committee would avoid placing two incumbents in the same district.

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