State Watch

Voting rights groups see gerrymandering as potent threat

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Voting rights groups are worried gerrymandering in a new round of redistricting could threaten voters of color, especially Black voters, following an election cycle that was highlighted by heightened minority voter turnout.

Democrats at the national level won back the White House and the Senate majority, partly thanks to the strength of turnout by Black voters.

But the party had a disappointing cycle at the state level, failing to make the gains in legislatures that would have given it more power to write new legislative and congressional lines.

Now voting rights groups are sounding the alarm about future gerrymandering — the redrawing of congressional districts to heavily favor one party over the other.

“A great way to suppress voters is redistricting,” China Dickerson, Forward Majority’s national political director, told The Hill. “Drawing the lines in ways that aren’t truly representative or not truly equitable … You draw these crazy lines so that all Republicans are in one place. Or you bring Republicans into districts that are [predominantly] Black and brown — essentially blue.”

To be sure, gerrymandering is a long-standing tactic that has been used by both Democrats and Republicans. But the states that have garnered the most concern for impending gerrymandering are in the South, and all have significant Black populations.

“There is significant gerrymander and risk in a handful of states … Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, in part because they’re fast growing, in part because they’re changing politically or have been battlegrounds … they’re also single party controlled,” Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, told The Hill.

Communities of color often get targeted by gerrymandering in the South, Li explained.

“In the South, you really can’t gerrymander without targeting communities of color,” Li said. “It’s efficient … it’s easy to divide them or pack them together or whatever, in order to see the political effect. There aren’t a lot of white Democrats [in the South] and white Democrats tend to live near white Republicans so … it’s really hard to gerrymander white Democrats in the South.”

John A. Powell, the director of the University of California Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, said in practice, political and racial gerrymandering have converged because of the stark polarization in U.S. politics.

In 2019, the Supreme Court said gerrymandering for political reasons was outside its scope.

Critics say gerrymandering to ensure Black voters have a voice in the legislature or the House can essentially be the same thing as political gerrymandering.

“The Supreme Court’s trying to parse things by saying political gerrymandering is basically non-reviewable, [while] racial gerrymandering is,” Powell said. “In the United States, they’re almost the same. … The law, I think, is pretty clear: You can’t engage in racial gerrymandering. But what does racial gerrymandering mean is interpreted by the court.”

Stephen Menendian, who works with Powell at the institute as its director of research, added: “Overlap between political and racial gerrymandering has become so pronounced that legislators can essentially do de jure political gerrymandering but de facto racial gerrymandering, and it’s just not clear how stringently courts will intervene.”

Voting rights activists in Georgia are especially weary. Powered by a bump in voter participation from Black Georgians and other voters of color in the state, Democrats won the Peach State in the presidential election and in its Senate runoff races.

The GOP, however, still has complete control over the state’s legislature and governorship, paving the way for it to draw new legislative and congressional battle lines.

“We expect that there’s going to be a fight, as it relates to the redistricting process,” Francys Johnson, chair of the New Georgia Project’s board, told The Hill, saying that legal action against how the maps are ultimately drawn is expected.

Tags 2022 midterms Gerrymandering Legislative races voting rights
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