Despite strong advocacy, congressional and legislative redistricting continue to leave minorities unrepresented. Litigation is expected before the 2022 primaries.
by Jenny Manrique
20 states in the country have completed congressional redistricting and 22 states have done so with respect to legislative district maps. Although communities of color in southern states are pushing for more equitable representation, partisan mapmakers aim to undermine their influence and legislators are passing laws to restrict their access to vote. If there’s a silver lining, advocates say, it’s growing public awareness about what’s at stake and what needs to be done to protect the democratic process.
“This cycle of redistricting is one of the most complicated ever,” said Michael Li, Senior Counsel, at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program during a press briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services and moderated by Jennifer Farmer, author. and founder of Spotlight PR.
“In part because the census data came out later than expected…and we’re also doing maps with COVID, so there’s less opportunity for the public to participate.”
In normal times, the census numbers would have been released in February but they were ready just in August, leaving less time for advocates to litigate maps while candidates prepare for the 2022 primaries. In Texas mail-in ballots will go out in less than 40 days and in North Carolina the filing period ends on December 17th.
“There’s a possibility that we will see primaries move as a result of litigation,” said Li, stressing that drawing mapping remains a political process done through legislatures, and usually subject to gubernatorial veto.
As in the Southern states, where one party controls everything, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, “that is a recipe for abuse and racially and politically discriminatory maps,” Li said. The two exceptions are the states of Louisiana and Virginia: the first because it is the only southern state with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, and the second because the commission that draws the maps is bipartisan.
While the census shows that communities of color (Black, Latino, and Asian) accounted for the largest increase in the country’s population (in fact, eight out of ten of the new voters this decade are people of color), in the last 10 years the White population fell for the first time in the country’s history. That’s why in demographically diverse states like Texas and Georgia, these communities are the focus of map drawing.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Asian and Latino voters were displaced from Congressional Districts 4 and 6 respectively to more rural counties, creating not only division between communities but political advantages for Republicans, Li explained.
“Redistricting is a much more potent form of voter suppression,” the expert observed. “Even if you’re able to vote, your vote really doesn’t matter because the result has already been predetermined. Because of these maps, people of color will be locked out of power for the course of decades.”
Activists insist that fair maps that have a lens towards racial equity will only happen if there is a process that provides access and education opportunities for people to participate. Governments and legislatures don’t seem very interested in it.
Kyle Brazile, Director of Civic Engagement for the NC Counts Coalition, said locals had only three business days to prepare for a public hearing on the criteria the legislature would adopt for the redistricting process, a hearing that was scheduled in the middle of the day so only a handful of people showed up.
“For this cycle, we had just 13 public hearings compared to the last decade, when there were over 60 public hearings throughout the state of North Carolina,” Brazile said. At the largest event in Durham, local organizations had to provide PPE and translation services. Despite the short time, 200 people registered and 150 attended a training session on these maps even though they did not have the drafts of what their representatives wanted to draw. The General Assembly set up a portal for people to make public comments, and received almost 4,000.
“We’re not excited about maps. There’s clear political gerrymandering in a state where we are split 30% unaffiliated, Democrat and Republican. We now have maps that are 11 to 3 leaning Republicans,” said Brazile. “Folks now want an independent redistricting commission in NC and stop spending $11 million every cycle on litigation against the legislature.”
As a result of the census, North Carolina now has an additional seat in Congress which represents more votes in the electoral college. The state saw an increase of about 40% within the Latino community in the last 10 years and today represents 10.7% of the entire population, with great growth in counties such as Mecklenburg, Wake, Forsyth and Guilford.
Despite this, Hispanics are the ones who least understand the process, they are not familiar with the places where the hearings are held and lack interpretation services, said Iliana Santillán, Executive Director of El Pueblo in North Carolina. Her organization created a Spanish website and illustrative material to help Hispanics understand redistricting.
“We have one Latinx legislator at the NC General Assembly (Ricky Hurtado), maybe a couple of City Council members and a couple of school board members. So it’s not that we have representation, and with the way that maps are drawn, this is not going to happen, ”said Santillan. “We need to elect our officials, not the other way around.”
In Alabama, a coalition of 28 civic engagement groups began meeting months before the census data was released in order to participate in the first round of redistricting in the state since the 2013 Shelby County decision. This decision ended section V of the Voting Rights Act that gave the Department of Justice the power to review any proposed legal changes in states with a history of discrimination against voters of color.
“We wanted people of color living in the state empowered to go to the public hearings,” said Evan Milligan, Executive Director of Alabama Forward. “We’re trying to make sure that messaging pervades everything we’re saying about redistricting and voter registration – it’s not just about the mechanics of civic institutions, but about the survival of our values and our democratic traditions.”
As it is still unknown whether federal laws such as the For the People Act (S1) and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, will pass in Congress, activists believe that nothing can be left to chance in what happens locally.