Commuters arrive in New York City on June 8, 2020 during the morning rush hour at Grand Central Station with Metro North.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images
The battle to redraw U.S. congressional districts is taking place for the first time in decades without certain federal protections for the districts, raising concerns that voters of color may be sidelined even as they have become a larger part of the population.
The Census Bureau released data this week that will serve as a basis for states to redraw their congressional districts. The process will affect the balance of power in the United States over the next decade and could have an impact on the closely divided House of Representatives in the interim 2022 term.
The Census data shows that the US has become more diverse over the past decade. Hispanic, Asian and multiracial communities grew rapidly, while the white population declined for the first time in history.
While still the largest group in the US, the white population shrank by 8.6%. The Hispanic population has grown by 23%, the Asian population by 35% and the black population by 5.6%. The multiracial population also grew at its fastest rate in the past decade, increasing by 276%.
While this data shows a significant increase in communities of color over the past decade, their political representation could suffer as states re-draw their political maps, experts say.
“It is certainly possible that we will actually reverse minority representation, despite population growth, and we expect this to be an area of significant litigation in the next decade,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist for Princeton Gerrymandering. Project and the Princeton Electoral Innovation Lab.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that required nine mostly Southern states to get approval for their congressional cards from the federal government. Counties in states outside the South, such as New York and California, were also subject to preclearance rules.
To gain approval, states had to demonstrate to the federal government that their reclassification plans had no discriminatory purpose or impact based on race, color or membership in a language minority group, the Justice Department said.
The absence of preclearance this year will give way to greater gerrymandering that could threaten the political power of minority communities despite their growing US population, experts say.
‘Single party control’
Gerrymandering refers to the manipulation of district lines to favor one party or class of people. Although the tactic is used by both parties, Republicans are in a stronger position because they control one party in more states, according to Samuel Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
“One-party control over the drawing of cards in a state is certainly the biggest motivator and predictor of gerrymandering,” Wang said.
Republicans control the signing of congressional cards in 18 states and legislative cards in 20 states, including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, according to a report published in February by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Democrats, on the other hand, only control congressional cards in seven states and legislative cards in nine states, according to the report. The rest of the states have independent commissions and bipartisan control over the drawing of cards or they don’t need cards because they are one-district states.
In total, Republicans have the option to draw 187 congressional districts and Democrats 84, according to NBC News. The practice of gerrymandering often targets voters of color and can be accomplished through two tactics commonly known as squatting and packing.
Cracking involves dispersing a minority community between districts so that they make up a small fraction of the electorate and have little political power in each district, Wang said. But a minority community can also be packed into a single constituency to reduce their influence in other districts, Wang added.
After the last census, in 2010, Republicans made legislative gains by gerrymandering in a number of states where they had one-party control, according to Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting attorney in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
“It’s really kind of undermining this democratic process that damages and shakes our system of government to the core because it means the election results are predetermined and voters can’t really choose their representatives,” Rudensky said. “Republican agents did that at the turn of the decade.”
Gerrymandering in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania alone gave Republicans 16 to 17 more congressional seats than they would have had with impartial maps, according to the Brennan Center report.
A number of Republican agents also launched the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, which raised more than $30 million in 2010 to redraw electoral maps in favor of GOP candidates, according to a court file obtained by the Brennan Center.
“This year, the gerrymandering is going to be terrible,” said University of Minnesota demographer Steven Ruggles. “Without the pre-approval, you can expect Republicans to be bolder about gerrymandering, even more so than they were in 2010.”
The Census Bureau released the first state-level data used to allocate the 435 seats in the House in April that showed a slight shift in political power to the Republican-led South and West.
Texas got two congressional seats, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each won one, according to April’s census data. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each lost a seat.
Democrats cling to a narrow majority in the House. They control 220 seats, while the GOP has 212. There are three vacancies.
Calls for reform
While gerrymandering is likely to take place in this reclassification cycle, reforms could force Republicans to appeal to voters of color instead, said Simone Leeper, a legal counsel at Campaign Legal Center.
“It’s about whether or not they’re successful at gerrymandering. If they are, they’re less accountable to certain communities,” Leeper said. “But if we can stop the gerrymandering, we can hold them accountable and we can expect them to try and win over these voters.”
In the 2020 election, then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, won the white vote by 55%-43%, while Democrat Joe Biden, the victor, won the black, Hispanic and Asian votes by significant margins, according to Pew Research. Trump, however, made significant gains with Spanish voters.
At the federal level, Leeper said, passing critical legislation could help fight gerrymandering. This includes the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore the preclearance requirement for mostly Southern states, and the For The People Act, which contains a ban on partisan gerrymandering.
Voters queue to vote outside the Barclays Center, which is used as a polling station, on the first day of early voting in Brooklyn, New York, USA October 24, 2020.
Jeenah Maan | Reuters
But minority communities and advocates can also take action at the state level, Podowitz-Thomas said.
As of 2019, eight states have the option for public testimonials about reclassification, giving citizens some input into the process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Podowitz-Thomas said individuals should closely monitor their state’s realignment process and attend as many public hearings as possible to push for sweeping reforms.
“We are optimistic that reform advocates and average citizens who want fair maps will ensure that no matter what the 2022 elections bring, the maps can and should reflect the will of the voters rather than just party interests,” Podowitz said. Thomas.
However, Gerrymandering can only be watered down if the reform is successful before the rapidly approaching reclassification deadlines.
The census data released on Thursday came months later than expected due to the pandemic. There were also allegations of political interference against the Trump administration, which failed in its attempt to add a citizenship question to the survey. The delay caused states to rush to establish new districts for next year’s midterm elections.
“Many states will face accelerated redistricting timelines,” Podowitz-Thomas said. “Some states will point to the shortened time frames as reasons to rush the process and pass cards quickly. And in some states, deadlines will be missed and there will be lawsuits over the validity of any card drawing process that occurs after the deadline.”
After the reclassification cycle this year, states can avoid gerrymandering by appointing impartial independent committees to oversee the reclassification process.
According to the Brennan Center report, Arizona, California, Colorado and Michigan are the only states with such committees for both congressional and legislative realignment. These commissions have “significantly improved the prospects for fairer cards in those states,” the report said.
Such committees “would be a long-term solution to take the power of drawing cards out of the hands of partisans and [the hands of] non-partisans not looking for a partisan gerrymander,” Leeper said.
But some Republicans have resisted attempts to reform gerrymandering. The Michigan Republican Party even filed a lawsuit in 2019 to block the formation of an independent reclassification committee approved by voters in the state, according to The Detroit News.
Several minority advocacy groups have expressed the need for district reform following the publication of the census data on Thursday.
“The reclassification process must ensure that Asian Americans and other racial minorities have a full and fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in a statement. .
Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the organization expects all reclassifications to accommodate shifts in the Latino population in the US.
“We expect these legal obligations to be met both in states with long-standing significant and growing Latino populations, such as California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Illinois, as well as in states and local areas where Latino populations are population is only now reaching critical mass to justify the creation of districts where Latino voters have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” Saenz said in a statement.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also said it will advocate for a fair reclassification process that encourages community participation.
“NAACP encourages voters to participate in the reclassification process by advocating for a fair trial that values community input, criteria for reclassification, including compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and maps that reflect the increasingly diverse population of this country,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement Friday.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits voting practices, including reclassification plans, that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.