The battle to redraw U. S. Congressional districts is being held for the first time in decades without certain federal redistricting protections, raising concerns that voters of color may be marginalized even though they have become a larger proportion of the population. Data from the past decade shows a significant increase in communities of color, but their political representation may be affected as states redraw their political maps, according to experts.
To obtain approval, states had to demonstrate to the federal government that their redistricting plans did not have a discriminatory purpose or impact on the basis of race, color, or membership in a linguistic minority group, according to the Department of Justice. The absence of prior authorization this year will give way to greater manipulation of electoral districts that could threaten the political power of minority communities despite their growing population in the United States. Electoral district manipulation refers to the manipulation of district lines to favor a party or class of people. While both parties use the tactic, Republicans are in a stronger position because they have one-party control in more states, according to Samuel Wang, director of the Princeton District Manipulation Project.
Republicans are in control of drawing maps of Congress in 18 states and legislative maps in 20 states, including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, according to a report released by the Brennan Justice Center in February. Democrats, on the other hand, are only in control of congressional maps in seven states and legislative maps in nine states, according to the report. The remaining states have independent commissions and bipartisan control over drawing maps or don't need maps because they are single-district states. In total, Republicans have the capacity to draw 187 congressional districts and Democrats 84, according to NBC News.
The practice of election manipulation often targets voters of color and can be achieved through two tactics commonly known as breaking up and packing. According to Wang, dismantling involves dispersing a minority community between districts so that they constitute a small part of the electorate and have little political power in each district. However, a minority community can also be grouped into a single constituency to reduce its influence in other districts, Wang added. Electoral manipulation in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania alone gave Republicans 16 to 17 more seats in Congress than they would have had with unbiased maps, according to the Brennan Center report.
The Census Bureau released initial statewide data in April, used to distribute the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, which showed a slight shift in political power to the south and west led by the Republicans. Texas won two seats in Congress, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each won one, according to April census data. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each lost one seat. While district manipulation is likely to occur in this redistricting cycle, the reform could force Republicans to appeal to voters of color said Simone Leeper, legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center.
At the federal level Leeper said passing critical legislation could help combat district manipulation. This includes the John Lewis Voting Rights Act which would reinstate the requirement for prior authorization for most southern states and the For The People Act which contains a prohibition on partisan manipulation. However minority communities and advocates can also take action at the state level said Podowitz-Thomas from Common Cause. Podowitz-Thomas said that people should closely follow their state's redistricting process and attend as many public hearings as possible to push for district manipulation reform.
However district manipulation can only be mitigated if reform is successful before redistricting deadlines rapidly approach. Census data released on Thursday came months later than expected due to the pandemic. There were also allegations of political interference against the Trump administration which failed in its attempt to add a question about citizenship to the survey. The delay caused states to scramble to establish new districts before next year's midterm elections.
Beyond this year's redistricting cycle states can avoid manipulation by adopting independent non-partisan commissions to oversee the redistricting process. Arizona California Colorado and Michigan are the only states with such commissions for the redistribution of legislative and congressional districts according to the Brennan Center report. According to the report these commissions have significantly improved the prospects for fairer maps in those states. Several minority advocacy groups expressed the need for redistricting reform following the release of census data on Thursday. Saenz president of The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund said that his organization expects all redistricting efforts will adapt to changes in Latino population across The United States.
The National Association for The Advancement of Colored People also said it will advocate for a fair redistricting process that encourages community participation. Section 2 of The Voting Rights Act prohibits electoral practices including redistricting plans that would deny or abridge voting rights based on race color or language.