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Redistricting Process Faces ‘Uncharted Territory’ Ahead of 2022 Midterms

June 28, 2021 by Reece Nations
U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Third Way, a D.C.- based think tank, hosted a virtual event Thursday with experts examining how the upcoming redistricting battles will define the 2022 midterms.

The event featured Genevieve Van Cleve, director of the Texas branch of “All on the Line,” a national anti-gerrymandering campaign, Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, and Dave Wasserman, house editor for The Cook Political Report. Each of the experts broke down the significance of the looming redistricting process across the country and the implications of the results.

A House Divided

“First of all, we’re more geographically polarized as a country than we were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago,” Wasserman said. “And so, it’s easier than ever for partisans where they have control to separate voters on their side and the other side to their own advantage. Of course, the delay in the census data… has really limited the opportunity for public feedback and condensed the timelines and puts a lot of pressure on states to get this done quickly – it may or may not mean that it gets done right. I expect a legal fight to last well into the decade, much as they lasted well into the previous decade.”

While there is more Democratic party control over the process than last decade, Wasserman said there is more redistricting commission involvement this time around as well. The composition of redistricting commissions — or non-legislative bodies entrusted with drafting and implementing new electoral districts — varies from state to state and applies to state legislative maps as well as federal congressional districts.

After last decade’s census was conducted, Republicans had almost five times as many seats to redraw as Democrats. This time around, however, Wasserman said Republicans will redraw 187 districts while Democrats have “final authority” over how 75 districts will be drawn.

“Republicans need to pick up five seats for [House of Representatives] control,” Wasserman said. “When I add up all of the states, I think Republicans have a chance to gain around four or five seats from redistricting alone … But there are a lot of states with a high degree of uncertainty.”

Particularly, Wasserman said he is interested in how the process will play out in Colorado, Michigan and Virginia. While Colorado and Michigan utilize independent, non-partisan redistricting commissions for redrawing their congressional maps, Virginia utilizes a hybrid commission composed of eight legislators and eight non-legislator citizens evenly divided between both major parties.

‘Given Up on Public Good’ 

Presently, legislative solutions to gerrymandering are due for consideration but face daunting challenges before the closely divided Senate. Namely, Li said the “For the People Act of 2021” would enact a statutory ban on partisan gerrymandering claims that are unable to be brought before federal courts for ruling.

In the past, the United States Supreme Court ruled that while partisan gerrymandering “may violate constitutional values,” only the legislature has the authority to impose standards for how congressional districts are drawn. The For the People Act would also strengthen some of the protections that exist for communities of color and create a pilot program to offer funding to local initiatives that provide voter registration information to high school seniors in an attempt to enhance voter participation by young Americans.

Community interest and public involvement in the process are at an all-time high, which Van Cleve said is likely due to increased awareness amplified by voting advocacy groups like Jolt and the League of Women Voters. Further, the process in years past has alienated much of the demographics that constitute Texas’ new populations in growing metropolitan areas, which has galvanized public discourse on the topic.

“It seems like keeping the lights on and helping communities sort of recover from [the COVID-19 pandemic] would be the highest priorities in [Texas], but Republicans have kind of given up on the public good,” Van Cleve said. “And I think that certainly transfers to redistricting and voting rights. You know, we’ve got a lot of King Lears that are doing their best Donald Trump impression running around in the Lone Star State. And, you know, in the middle of this incredible time politically for us here, we have a very important process that must take place.”

Most of Texas’ new inhabitants belong to African American and Latino communities, she said, and they are moving in droves to urban communities like Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin where they overwhelmingly tend to vote for liberals.

Eight of the nation’s 15 fastest-growing cities are in Texas, and 90% of the state’s 4 million new residents were minorities. Despite this, in Texas’ last redistricting process in 2011, not a single minority community received an additional seat in Congress.

Moving Goalposts 

Because the Republican-led legislature has ultimate control over the process, they have routinely drawn congressional districts that conservatives can comfortably win while disproportionately packing voters of minority demographics into districts that are already Democratic-favored.

“Partisan gerrymandering almost always comes at the expense of communities of color, especially in the South,” Li said. “That’s because in states like Texas and Georgia, Democrats only get about [25-28%] of the White vote. And the problem with White Democrats, is they tend to live really close to White Republicans from the same neighborhood and sometimes in the same houses.”

Texas’ redrawn voting districts helped Republicans win more U.S. House seats through redistricting than any other state, according to analysis published by the Associated Press. In races where Democrats could closely compete with Republican candidates, Li said emerging coalitions of multiracial voters could easily be kneecapped during the redistricting process – unless statutes like the ones in the For the People Act are passed.

The Lone Star State has been found to be in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act every decade since its enactment, but years of legal battles led the Supreme Court to rule in June 2019 in a 5-4 decision that partisan redistricting is a political question and not subject to review by federal courts.

“We’re going to jump through every single hoop to ensure that people in this state talk to their representatives [and] their elected leaders about how… this process seems to only positively affect certain political parties, certain points of view and certain populations,” Van Cleve said. “It’s simply not how it’s supposed to work… So, wherever new districts are drawn in Texas, they’re not meant to be drawn in rural areas. They’re meant to be drawn where people actually live.”

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