Black and Latino voters have been shortchanged in redistricting, advocates and some judges say
Colby Itkowitz & Harry Stevens • Jan 25, 2022
New congressional maps are completed in more than half the country, and so far Democrats have been spared the redistricting losses they endured a decade ago, a small mercy for their efforts to cling to their fragile House majority.
But advocates for voting rights say that raw political calculation overshadows another reality — how map drawers have manipulated the lines mostly at the expense of minorities.
Across the country, the White population has shrunk over the past decade as minority communities have swelled, according to the 2020 Census. Yet, the rapid growth of Latinos and Blacks is not reflected in any of the new maps passed so far, except California’s, which added five seats where Latinos make up the majority of adults. Black-majority districts decreased by five seats while majority-White districts grew by eight seats, according to a Washington Post analysis looking at the 28 states that have completed congressional maps.
Judges have intervened in two states where Republican state legislators were accused by voting rights advocates of disenfranchising Black voters. In Alabama on Monday night, a panel of federal judges struck down a new congressional map that packed Black voters into one of seven districts in a state where they account for 27 percent of the population. The judges ruled that the legislature must draw a second congressional district in which Black residents have “an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.”
The decision, which is certain to be appealed, follows another redistricting win for Democrats this month, when the Ohio Supreme Court determined that the GOP-led legislature had unfairly drawn the lines to its partisan advantage.
In both instances, the decision to invalidate the maps and send state legislators back to the drawing board could yield Democrats several more seats ahead of the November midterm election, when control of Congress will turn on a handful of races.
Before states began drawing their lines last year, experts estimated that Republicans could gain enough seats in redistricting alone to overcome the current 10-seat advantage Democrats hold in the House. Yet, based on the 2020 presidential election results, Democrats have made gains, netting an additional five districts that Joe Biden would have won. To be sure, though, Democrats are not guaranteed wins in those seats in November. The party in the White House has historically lost ground in midterm elections.
The more favorable outcome for Democrats is the result of several factors, including one ironic one: The extreme gerrymandering of a decade ago maximized Republican seats so much that it gave Republicans fewer options to draw themselves new seats this time. According to a 2017 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans gained a net benefit of 16 to 17 seats in the three congressional elections after redistricting was completed in 2012.
The shifting demographics across the nation as minority communities grew and spread into the suburbs also complicated Republicans’ ability to draw new safe districts for their party. So instead, they largely shifted lines to protect incumbents, effectively erasing competitive districts to ensure that they will retain power in future years as the population becomes less White. The result is 14 more districts that President Donald Trump would have won by more than 15 percentage points, compared with two more that Biden would have won by the same margin.
“Most folks have already evaluated the partisan implications of the maps passed to date as not being overly bad for the Democrats, or at least not compared to expectations,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. “However, the bigger story that we are noting is the aggressive approach to the redistricting of racial minorities, where populations that historically resided in districts that provided an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice are losing their say, and that despite driving a disproportionate amount of population growth in many states, minority populations are not seeing their representational opportunities increase in tandem.”
The disparity is sharpest in Southern states such as Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana where Black people account for about one-third of the population but are packed into far fewer congressional districts.
“We are deeply concerned that Black votes are going to be severely underrepresented in many states,” said Michael Pernick, redistricting counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The numbers … are quite concerning. It is critical that voters of color, Black voters in these states, have the opportunity to participate and elect candidates of their choice.”
In Alabama, the state’s Black voters are packed into the 7th Congressional District, currently represented by Rep. Terri A. Sewell, an African American Democrat. The district shape resembles a fist covering a large area along the Mississippi border with two fingers jutting out to capture the heavily Black cities of Birmingham and Montgomery in the center of the state.
“Monumental news from the court!” Sewell said in a statement after the rejection of the Alabama map. “Increasing political representation of Black Alabamians is exactly what John Lewis and the Foot Soldiers who marched across the bridge in my hometown of Selma fought for.”
The Alabama map could end up as the marquee Supreme Court redistricting case examining the extent to which map drawers are allowed to pack minority groups into fewer districts or spread them among Whiter ones. The Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal courts have no role in determining partisan motives in redistricting, so the only recourse to challenge a map in federal courts is to prove legislators drew racial gerrymanders.
In Georgia, the Republican-led legislature redrew districts in and around Atlanta that critics say diminish the power of Black voters. Most notably, it swapped out about half of Democrat Lucy McBath’s suburban Atlanta district and replaced those voters with more rural conservative ones in northern Georgia, turning it from a safe Democratic seat to a safe Republican one. Rather than run in an unwinnable district, the congresswoman, an African American, is now running in the Democratic primary in a neighboring district against another incumbent, Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, who is White.
In one of the state’s three current majority-Black districts, the new map reduces the percentage of Black adults from 52.2 percent to 46.8 percent — though it remains a safe Democratic seat — and siphons off Black communities from the district of Rep. David Scott (D), an African American, into the district of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R), a conservative firebrand.
Coakley Pendergrass, a minister and community organizer in Cobb County, Ga., is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state, alleging that Republicans deliberately drew the new map to ensure “that the growth of the state’s Black population will not translate to increased political influence at the federal level.”
The lawsuit claims that the state is required to draw another majority-Black district under the Voting Rights Act. Pendergrass’s home in the suburbs to the northwest of Atlanta is drawn into a staunchly conservative district, making it impossible for him and other Black voters, who typically vote Democratic, to elect a candidate of their choice, his attorneys argued in the suit.
“The party in charge determines who they want to vote for them,” Pendergrass said in an interview. “We feel redistricting is taking the vote away from minorities. It’s not that we feel, we know it’s taking the vote away.”
In North Carolina, map drawers blew up Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s district, replacing Black voters with rural Whites. Butterfield (D), who is Black, decided not to run for reelection. In Tennessee, legislators passed a map this week that chopped Nashville into three districts, spreading Black voters among them. The 5th District, whose adult population was about 21 percent Black, would now be only 11 percent Black.
Rep. Jim Cooper, a White Democrat who currently represents all of the city, on Tuesday announced he would retire at the end of his term, accusing Republican legislators of “dismembering Nashville.”
“The damage this map does to the political influence of minority groups in Nashville is devastating,” he said in an earlier statement. “That voice is silenced when we are colonized by outlying rural communities.”
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last week released his own congressional map that would give Republicans as many as four more House seats by reducing the voting strength of Black communities in the state. DeSantis’s proposal erases the majority-Black district that runs from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, the seat for which is currently held by Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. He also would turn a safe Democratic seat held by Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat who is now running for Senate, into one Trump would have won by double digits.
Kathay Feng, a redistricting expert at Common Cause, said the massive growth in communities of color over the past decade means that their representation should have grown, not shrunk.
“It’s a falsehood for political pundits or operatives to say status quo is sufficient,” she said. “You can’t force your 12-year-old to continue wearing the clothes of a 2-year-old. It’s pretending like they haven’t grown.”
Latinos, the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, fared slightly better than Blacks, solely because of the seats they picked up in California. In Texas, the population grew by 4 million people over the past decade, half of them Latinos. The population explosion yielded the state two new seats, both of which the GOP legislature drew to be majority-White. The Justice Department is suing the state, alleging it is violating the Voting Rights Act, which says that where a majority-minority district can be drawn, states should do so.
Kelly Ward Burton, executive director of National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the advocacy group created by former attorney general Eric Holder, said Republican gerrymanders have been blunted in some areas through the creation of independent commissions. The election of Democratic governors in key states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan also has helped protect communities of color from unilateral GOP maps. But, Ward said, there are still significant problems with how many maps undercut those voters.
“I think it proves our point that they are scared of the voters, they know this country is growing and growing against them and they don’t want to risk districts where the voters have a say,” she said.
Adam Kincaid, who runs the National Republican Redistricting Trust, did not directly respond to a question about how communities of color are treated in the new maps. But he said in an email: “Redistricting is unfolding in line with where our expectations were a year ago. Republicans will be well positioned to take back the House and then defend their new majority.”
You can read the full article by Colby Itkowitz and Harry Stevens here.
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