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Gerrymandering could limit the power of minority voters even though the census shows population increases

Commuters arrive at Grand Central Station on Metro-North during the morning rush hour on June 8, 2020 in New York City.

Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

The battle to reorganize the U.S. Congressional Districts is taking place for the first time in decades without certain federal safeguards, raising concerns that voters of color may be sidelined despite making up a larger proportion of the population.

The Census Bureau released data this week that will serve as a basis for states to reorganize their congressional districts. The process will affect the balance of power in the United States for a decade and could affect the narrowly divided House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections.

The census data shows that the US has become more diverse over the past decade. Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial communities grew rapidly while the white population declined for the first time in history.

While the white population is still the largest group in the U.S. as a whole, it has shrunk by 8.6%. The Hispanic population grew by 23%, the Asian population by 35%, and the black population by 5.6%. The multiracial population has also grown the fastest over the past decade, increasing by 276%.

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While this data shows a significant increase in color communities over the past decade, their political representation could suffer if states re-create their political maps, experts say.

"It is certainly possible that, despite population growth, we may actually see a decline in minority representation, and we expect this to be an area of ​​significant litigation over the decade," said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and the Princeton Electoral Innovation Lab.

In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned an important provision in the Voting Rights Act that required nine mostly southern states to obtain approval for their congressional cards from the federal government. Counties in states outside the south, such as New York and California, were also subject to preliminary screening rules.

To obtain approval, states had to demonstrate to the federal government that their reallocation plans had no discriminatory purpose or effect based on race, color, or linguistic minority affiliation, the Justice Department said.

The lack of preliminary clarification this year will give way to stronger gerrymandering that could threaten the political power of minority communities despite their growing US population, experts say.

"Single party control"

Gerrymandering refers to the manipulation of district leaderships to benefit a party or class of people. Although the tactic is used by both parties, Republicans are in a stronger position because they have control of a single party in more states, according to Samuel Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

"The sole control of map drawing in a state is certainly the greatest motivator and predictor of gerrymandering," said Wang.

Republicans have control over drawing congressional cards in 18 states and law cards in 20 states, including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice in February.

Democrats, on the other hand, only have control of Congress cards in seven states and legislative cards in nine states, according to the report. The remaining states have independent commissions and bipartisan control over map drawing, or they do not require maps because they are one-district states.

Overall, according to NBC News, Republicans have the option to draw 187 Congressional districts and Democrats 84. The practice of gerrymandering is often aimed at colored voters and can be achieved through two tactics commonly known as cracking and packing.

The sole control of map drawing in a state is certainly the greatest motivator and predictor for gerrymandering.

Samuel Wang

Director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project

Cracking involves distributing a minority community among the districts so that they make up a small portion of the electorate and have little political power in each district, Wang said. But a minority community can also be packed into a single electoral district to reduce its influence in other districts, Wang added.

Following the last census in 2010, Republicans made legislative progress by gerrymandering in a number of states where they had one-party control, according to Yurij Rudensky, a redistribution advisor on the Brennan Center's democracy program.

"It is really a kind of subversion of this democratic process that is damaging and shaking our system of government to the core because it means that the election results are predetermined and the voters cannot really elect their representatives," said Rudensky. "That's what Republican agents did at the beginning of the decade."

The gerrymandering in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania alone gave Republicans 16 to 17 more seats in Congress than they would have had with unbiased cards, the Brennan Center report said.

A number of Republican activists also started the Redistricting Majority Project [REDMAP], which raised more than $ 30 million in 2010 to redesign voting cards for the benefit of GOP candidates, according to a court record obtained from the Brennan Center.

"This year the gerrymandering is going to be terrible," said Steven Ruggles, demographer at the University of Minnesota. "Without the preclearance, you can expect the Republicans to be even bolder about gerrymandering, even more so than they were in 2010."

The Census Bureau released initial state-level data in April that was used to split the 435 House seats, which showed a slight shift in political power to the Republican-led south and west.

According to April census data, Texas won two seats in Congress while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon gained one each. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia each lost one seat.

The Democrats cling to a slim majority in the House of Representatives. They control 220 seats while the GOP has 212. There are three vacancies.

Calls for reform

While gerrymandering is likely to occur in this redistribution cycle, the reform could force Republicans to turn to colored voters instead, said Simone Leeper, legal advisor at the Campaign Legal Center.

"It's about whether they are successful at gerrymandering or not. When they are, certain communities are less accountable to them," Leeper said. "But if we can stop the gerrymandering, we can hold them accountable and expect them to try to win these voters over."

In the 2020 election, then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, won the white vote by 55% to 43%, while the winner, Democrat Joe Biden, won the votes of blacks, Hispanics and Asians by a considerable margin, according to Pew Research. However, Trump saw significant gains among Hispanic voters.

At the federal level, Leeper said, passing critical laws could help fight gerrymandering. These include the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore prior authorization requirements for most southern states, and the For The People Act, which bans partisan gerrymandering.

Voters will line up on the first day of early voting in Brooklyn, New York, United States, October 24, 2020 to cast their ballots in front of the Barclays Center, which is used as a polling station.

Jeenah moon | Reuters

But minority communities and lawyers can also become active at the state level, said Podowitz-Thomas.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2019, eight states will have the opportunity to publicly testify about the redistribution, which will allow citizens to get involved in the process.

Podowitz-Thomas said individuals need to closely monitor their state's redistribution process and attend as many public hearings as possible to push for gerrymandering reform.

"We are optimistic that reform advocates and average citizens who want fair cards will ensure that, regardless of what the 2022 elections bring, the cards can and should reflect the will of the electorate and not just partisan interests," said Podowitz-Thomas.

However, gerrymandering can only be weakened if the reform is successful before the redistribution deadlines quickly approach.

The census data released on Thursday came months later than expected due to the pandemic. There have also been allegations of political interference against the Trump administration, which failed to add a citizenship question to the poll. The delay resulted in states seeking to establish new districts before next year's mid-term elections.

"Many states are facing accelerated redistribution deadlines," said Podowitz-Thomas. "Some states will cite the shortened timeframes as reasons to rush the process and quickly hand over cards to the deadline."

Beyond this year's redistribution cycle, states can prevent gerrymandering by setting up non-partisan independent commissions to oversee the redistribution process.

According to the Brennan Center report, the only states with such commissions for redistribution by Congress and legislature are Arizona, California, Colorado, and Michigan. These commissions have "significantly improved" "the prospects for fairer cards" in these states, the report said.

Such commissions "would be a long-term solution to take the power of map-drawing out of the hands of partisans and put it in the hands of non-partisans who don't want to make partisans," Leeper said.

But some Republicans have spoken out against gerrymandering reform. According to The Detroit News, the Michigan Republican Party even filed a lawsuit in 2019 to block the formation of an independent redistribution commission that was approved by the state's electorate.

Several minority advocacy groups expressed the need to re-narrow the reform after the census data was released on Thursday.

"The reassignment process must ensure that Asian Americans and other ethnic minorities have a full and fair opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice," Jerry Vattamala, director of democracy programs at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in a statement.

Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the organization expects all redistributions to reflect changes in the US Latino population.

“We expect these legal obligations to be met in states with long-standing and growing Latino populations such as California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Illinois, as well as states and local areas that are only now beginning to have Latino populations lives to reach a critical mass to justify the creation of districts where Latino voters have the opportunity to vote for candidates of their choosing, "Saenz said in a statement.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also said it would advocate a fair redistribution process that encourages community participation.

“NAACP encourages voters to get involved in the redistribution process by advocating a fair process that values ​​community contribution, criteria for redistribution, including compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and cards that serve the increasingly diverse population reflect this nation, “NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement Friday.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits electoral practices, including redistribution plans, that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or belonging to a linguistic minority.

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