In many states, a full-scale effort is underway to limit pro-democracy procedures that make it easier for people to vote. This includes many measures that expanded ballot access during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as no-excuse absentee ballots, early voting periods and ballot drop boxes. The proposed restrictions and limitations pose significant threats to ballot access and would silence community voice. Yet, another, silent threat looms that could have an equally devastating impact on equal access to the ballot for years to come — racial and political gerrymandering during redistricting.
Redistricting takes place after every decennial Census and involves drawing election boundaries for elected offices in federal, state and local government. Congressional districts as well as city councils and school boards must be redrawn to comply with equal population, the Voting Rights Act, respect for communities and other principles and state-specific criteria.
During past redistricting cycles, the process lacked transparency and substantive public participation in how these districts were drawn. As a result, politicians across the country have drawn election boundaries in unconstitutional ways. For example, the historically Black North Carolina A&T University saw its campus divided into two districts, splitting the community and unfairly benefiting one party over the other. If there is any doubt that elections and race matter in redistricting, then why draw a line down the middle of a majority-Black college campus?
In addition to unlawful racial motivations, partisan interests have also guided the drawing of these political boundaries. Districts are drawn for people, not specific elected officials, or parties seeking to gain influence with electoral outcomes. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has limited the authority of lower federal courts to address district lines drawn specifically for partisan advantage; so political parties can continue to draw districts to increase their political power. However, communities can exert influence in this process by doing exactly what democracy demands… participation.
National organizations such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, along with community groups, state coalitions and many others are providing training and education on the redistricting process. Through seminars, forums and webinars, voters are encouraged to increase awareness and help empower their communities with knowledge and training to make a difference in how districts are drawn.
Unlike the past where districts were drawn in smoke-filled rooms and voters discovered district changes when they went to polls to vote, the process has evolved. Voters now can ask to see proposals, comment on district boundaries and submit their own plans for consideration — the exact kind of participation our democracy demands. A variety of redistricting resources are available free of charge, allowing community members to draw potential election districts and define their specific communities, utilize data to learn demographic and other details about communities, and research voting methods and reform measures.
Public comment and participation is not new. It was evident during the Section 5 preclearance process for covered jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which required certain areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination in ballot access to obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice or a federal court for any voting changes, including new district lines. Shelby County v. Holder, struck down the coverage formula once used to determine which jurisdictions were subject to this requirement, leaving voting rights measures to now be implemented without this important protection.
Communities must engage in the redistricting process by drawing and demanding fair districts. There is still time to mobilize. Delays in the release of census data due to the COVID-19 pandemic may extend to September 2021, giving communities a window of opportunity to learn more about redistricting. Public education activities are happening now. Last year voters were told to develop a plan to vote. Now, voters should implement a plan and participate in redistricting education and advocacy. Tell lawmakers about the flaws in their last redistricting plans, and demand positive changes for a new proposal that respects your community and its shared interests.
These moments are not only calling for the next election, but the next elections. How districts are drawn will impact election results for the next 10 years. We can impact elections beyond Election Day by advocating for fair election districts, supporting fair representation voting methods, urging consideration of state laws or constitutional amendments to counter partisan gerrymandering and supporting legislative efforts to expand ballot access. Citizenship takes work. This is our charge.
Fred McBride is a redistricting and voting rights policy specialist with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.