With the latest redistricting cycle in full swing, many states have already enacted or are close to approving new congressional and state legislative maps. These maps will affect every voter across the United States by determining the districts where they cast election ballots for the next 10 years. Notably, the redistricting process can have a significant impact on Black voters’ political power due to racial gerrymandering — and the unique circumstances of this redistricting cycle mean it’s causing more intensive alarm about rights infringements than cycles of decades prior.
Despite its major influence on elections and people’s lives, however, redistricting is complicated and easily misunderstood. To shed some light on the process, LDF Policy Counsel Jared Evans and Redistricting Counsel Michael Pernick answered common questions about how redistricting works and its many implications, what makes this cycle higher stakes than its predecessors, and how you can get involved in your state’s process. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length).
Michael: The redistricting process is all about redrawing the district lines that elect our legislators. And it happens at every level of government. It’s incredibly important because the configuration of district lines determines who gets to vote for which candidates. The process happens once every 10 years.
Jared: The redistricting process is the allocation of power. So, think about it this way: if we don’t get it right this cycle, if we are not able to drive equitable maps that fairly represent minority voters — we won’t have another opportunity to do this until 2031. That’s how important this process is.
Michael: Data from the census provides the building blocks for the redistricting process. Every time new lines are drawn, every time the districts are reconfigured, the folks who do that work, who are most often state legislators, look to the census to determine where people live and ensure that the districts have roughly the same number of individuals. All of that data comes from the 2020 census, and that’s why this process only happens once every 10 years — because we need to wait for the next census to have new data.
Jared: These political lines establish districts that determine where your city councilperson is elected, where your school board member is elected, all the way up to where your congressperson is elected. Typically, this process would have been done in the spring, but because of all of the census delays that occurred in 2020, we are about a year behind.
Michael: In many cases, the configuration of district boundaries will have a major effect on who gets elected — and the racial justice implications are dramatic. Imagine, for instance, a community of Black voters that’s big enough to elect a candidate of their choice in one district. If that community is fractured and split across multiple districts, those voters won’t have any opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in any of those districts.
On the other hand, imagine that there’s a significant Black community that might have enough voters to elect candidates in multiple districts, but they’re packed into just one district that might be 80% or 75% Black. The result is that those Black voters might get one representative, but don’t have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in other districts.
Jared: What Michael is describing is called racial gerrymandering, when a map is drawn to have a specific impact to directly disadvantage a group of people based on their race. For example, it is our belief that Louisiana’s congressional map is a racial gerrymander because it packs voters of color into one district instead of allowing them to influence two separate districts. The city of New Orleans, which has a substantial minority population, and the city of Baton Rouge are packed into one district that winds up the Mississippi River and packs voters into one district solely based on their race. That is a racial gerrymander. The way you fix that is to separate those districts to create a more equitable map — and the seven maps we proposed all have two majority-minority districts.
Michael: This redistricting cycle is unlike any other that we’ve been through in any of our lifetimes. Back in 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which is one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in our nation’s history. The crown jewel was Section 5, which established preclearance. This process requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get approval, or preclearance, from the Department of Justice or a federal court before making any changes to their voting rules. This was significant for redistricting because it required any new district maps in covered jurisdictions to go through the preclearance process.
Yes, in 2013 the United States Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, struck down the preclearance provisions that determined which jurisdictions would be covered, effectively rendering preclearance ineffective. This means this is the first redistricting cycle since the passage of the VRA where we do not have the protection of preclearance. We’re seeing the effects of this across the country with maps that are being enacted that weaken Black political power and fail to ensure that Black voters have a voice and an opportunity to be heard in the process.
Jared: We are also substantially certain that there was a census undercount. The census took place in the middle of a global pandemic that had a disproportionate impact on African Americans, especially in the states that we work in like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. So not only was there a delay in the census, but the risk of an undercount meant that Black voters, all the Black people who live in those areas … were not accurately counted. We had an administration that was hostile to the census and felt that they would benefit from an undercount, in addition to no longer having Section 5. So, all of those reasons are why this redistricting cycle has greater importance and there’s a greater sense of urgency.
Michael: Additionally, as a result of underfunding, the pandemic, and litigation, the census this year was very controversial. Many people think it was deeply flawed and most significantly, it was extremely delayed … Generally, we would have gotten the data that’s necessary for redistricting many months earlier, but because of these delays, the process is being compressed and isn’t going through all of the best practices for public engagement, analysis, and deliberation. There’s less opportunity for members of the public to weigh in and have their voices heard in the redistricting process.
Jared: For example, before Section 5 of the VRA was weakened, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division blocked nearly 150 proposed changes to voting practices and policies in Louisiana on the grounds that they discriminated against Black voters or diluted Black voting strength… If we had legislation like the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, none of these discriminatory changes could even be enacted. That’s how important it is to get preclearance restored to its previous glory, so that organizations like LDF have a tool to get these practices struck down before they can do damage.
Michael: The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act would have breathed new life into the Voting Rights Act. It would create provisions and establish procedures so that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting would have to get approval preclearance before implementing new maps. This could be all the difference between discriminatory maps that make it difficult, if not impossible, for voters of color to participate in the political process to elect candidates of their choice and a fair process so voters of color are heard and represented in the electoral process.
Michael: The loss of Section 5 is deeply concerning and the implications for redistricting are really quite significant. That’s why it’s so important for everyone to get involved in this process. Make sure that voices are heard. Show up to meetings. Testify before redistricting committees at every level of government. We can’t get preclearance back through the courts, but we can monitor the process, be engaged, and make sure that elected officials know they’re being watched by advocates across the country.
Jared: We have to let the legislative and governmental bodies that are drawing these maps know that we are watching and will be watching every step of the way. They need to feel the pressure from the public to get this right. If we don’t get fairer, more equitable maps this cycle, we won’t have another opportunity to do this again until 2031. That’s how high the stakes are right now in the areas that we are working in.
Redistricting can elevate or silence communities of color in our elections. The ongoing effort to dilute Black voters’ political strength is abhorrent, but it is not new. Now more than ever, it is crucial to learn about the redistricting process in your state. What are voting rights advocates saying about your state’s maps? Do your local civil rights organizations have concerns? Your community leaders?
Without Section 5, the public needs to be especially proactive to prevent discriminatory maps from being enacted. Contact state legislators that sit on your redistricting commission, attend public hearings, and spread the word, because there will not be another opportunity to get it right in this decade.
LDF and partners created a guide to familiarize you with what redistricting is all about, and to support you in making sure your voice is heard in the redistricting process.
Learn more about the redistricting process and find state-level information about demographics, how maps are drawn, and opportunities to engage with your community.
LDF has been closely monitoring the redistricting process in key states to ensure that maps are drawn fairly. So far, LDF has submitted maps in a number of states, sent letters, and filed two lawsuits in South Carolina and Alabama challenging discriminatory maps. We’ve compiled our work by state here.