Is the Voting Rights Act facilitating gerrymandering?

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The Voting Rights Act is a key piece of legislation meant to ensure that underrepresented groups gain representation in Congress. In 2015, there were 122 majority-minority congressional districts, ensuring that minorities have a voice in our political process. However, partisan redistricting commissions can use the creation of majority-minority districts to facilitate gerrymandering. As such, what is gained by the act in minority representation may also lead to a weakening of democracy for all. Moreover, both parties are guilty of such exploitation for seats in the House of Representatives. 

The preponderance of majority-minority districts are Democratic-leaning. In the 117th Congress, all 22 majority-minority districts with an African American majority have Democratic representatives. This was also the case for the two majority-minority districts with an Asian-American majority. Of the 26 majority-minority districts with a Hispanic/Latino majority, 19 have Democratic representatives and seven have Republican representatives.  

Of note is that this strong Democratic bias in forming majority-minority districts actually favors Republicans. 

Ensuring a majority-minority district requires minority voters to be packed, effectively ensuring their representation. This however dilutes their influence in other districts. The net effect of this are less competitive districts and given that the majority of minority voters are Democratic-leaning, more representatives that are Republican get elected. 

This effect is most apparent in states with large minority populations, like Texas. In the newly enacted 2021 map, all but one of the Democrat-leaning districts are majority-minority districts.

Democrats also use the Voting Rights Act as an apparent smoke screen for gerrymandering shenanigans. A textbook example of this is the recently enacted 2021 Illinois congressional map

The new Illinois map has five majority-minority districts, three African American and two Hispanic/Latino. The governor touted this accomplishment in support of the Voting Rights Act and minority representation. However, like a magician who draws the attention of an audience with one hand, while performing manipulations with the other hand, the shapes of downstate Illinois districts appear carefully manicured around left-leaning urban areas and right-leaning rural areas. The net effect is a gerrymander that makes the new map one of the most egregious gerrymanders of 2021 maps drawn to date. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project agrees, grading this map an F (which stands for fail — not fair) across multiple fairness metrics. 

Our research group algorithmically drew eight Illinois congressional maps that all feature five majority-minority districts (three African-American and two Hispanic/Latino), while working to keep the districts compact and competitive. Not surprisingly, the majority-minority districts are clustered around the Chicago area. What these algorithmically designed maps demonstrate is that competitive maps with several majority-minority districts exist and serve the interests of all voters, including minority voters to ensure their representation. Most importantly, they support democracy to give voters the right to elect their representatives, rather that the political parties choosing their voters, as appears to be the case in Illinois. 

During this period when there is more conflict and separation in society, the interests of the nation are best served to support independent commissions for drawing congressional maps. Both the For the People Act of 2021 and the Freedom to Vote Act bills contain provisions that would either mandate this in every state or support general principles that combat gerrymandering. Neither piece of legislation gained the necessary votes to be passed into law. However, the fact that the majority of voters from both parties support efforts to curb gerrymandering provides a beacon of hope that over the next decade, such a law will be passed. 

Today, 14 states use an independent commission to draw congressional maps, including California, with its 52 representatives in the next Congress. Republican-controlled states like Texas and Florida, which have a large number of congressional seats and gained seats in the next Congress, have no independent commissions to buffer gerrymandering. 

The Voting Rights Act and minority representation are critical to support the strength of our nation’s democracy. However, when politicians use it to facilitate or try to hide gerrymandering, they are guilty of betraying the principles of democracy that they vow to support and which serve the interests of all voters.    

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research group on computational redistricting is committed to bringing transparency to the redistricting process using optimization algorithms and artificial intelligence.   

Tags Congress Gerrymandering Sheldon H. Jacobson voters Voting voting rights

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