Power on the Line(s): Making Redistricting Work for Us

Date Filed: 05/11/2021

Power on the Line(s): Making Redistricting Work for Us is a guide to familiarize you with what redistricting is all about, and to provide you with ways you can make sure your voice is heard in the redistricting process for the seats that affect you. The appendix to the guide explains how you can get involved in the redistricting process in your state. This guide is a collaboration between the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, and MALDEF.

In the face of the many changes in our country’s political and demographical landscape, one thing remains constant: the American people are the bedrock of our system of government, and it is our right to engage in the political process to achieve a more equitable nation and better lives for everyone. Achieving equal representation and being able to cast equal and effective votes depends in part on redistricting maps that are drawn fairly to reflect and respect our communities. Redistricting encompasses the process by which states and the jurisdictions within them redraw the district maps that shape legislative, congressional, and local power.

The 2021 redistricting cycle will be the first without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in place to protect against discriminatory redistricting. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder effectively dismantled Section 5 and the pre-approval process that required states with histories of racial discrimination redistricting to seek approval from the federal government before implementing plans. The absence of the federal government’s pre-approval process is a major detriment to voters of color going into this next redistricting cycle.

The maps drawn for the post-2020 redistricting cycle will determine the allocation of political power and representation at every level of government across the nation for at least the next ten years. Now more than ever, we must all participate in the redistricting process to prevent jurisdictions from engaging in discriminatory redistricting whether based on race, party affiliation, or some other identity. Your vote and your political power—your voice in our democracy—are on the line.

Power on the Line(s): Making Redistricting Work for Us

What is redistricting and what does the census have to do with it?

Redistricting is the process by which states and the jurisdictions within them redraw the lines that encompass electoral districts. Redistricting requires an accurate count of the people living in each district so it coincides with the Census and happens every 10 years. Once Census data are released, state governments, redistricting committees, community organizations, and residents use that population data to draw electoral maps. Districts are the geographical areas from which political representatives are elected on the local, regional, state, and federal levels. Districts must be drawn to comply with the central requirements of the Voting Rights Act, reflect an accurate count of the people living there, and ensure that the new boundary lines do not dilute minority voting strength.

In Reynolds v. Sims, the Supreme Court announced a rule that state legislatures must have districts of approximately equal population size to ensure that everyone has equal representation and political power. This requirement is known as the “one person, one vote” principle.

Who draws the new district lines?

Usually the state legislature has the authority to draw electoral lines. When it’s time to draw new maps, most state legislatures will convene public meetings or consider public maps to provide an opportunity for community input, transparency, and inclusivity in the redistricting process. However, some legislators may prioritize their own re-election and particular racial groups or political parties whom they perceive as likely to support them over other criteria and policies during redistricting. Some (but not all) states have laws and constitutional provisions that attempt to combat these self-interested practices. 

In other states, district lines are drawn by an Independent Redistricting Commission (IRCs). IRCs have been established by states to try to divorce politics and ensure fairness in the redistricting process. However, IRCs aren’t always immune to political motives or reflective of the racial diversity of communities within their jurisdictions.

What is the difference between redistricting and reapportionment?

While redistricting is the process of redrawing district lines, reapportionment is the allocation of electoral seats to that specific geography and is also based on population counts. Since populations change over time, redistricting and reapportionment must coincide with the census count every 10 years. Through the reapportionment process, the 435 seats in the House of Representatives are allocated to the 50 states based on their population counts: The larger the population, the more House seats it gets. 

How has redistricting been used to diminish voting power and capacities of communities of color?

There is a long history of federal, state, and local officials using the redistricting process as a mechanism for excluding voters of color from the body politic, and/or diminishing their voting power. These schemes often occur when legislative bodies and redistricting commissions believe they can ignore the interests of voters of color, or when communities of color and the groups that represent them do not have a voice in the redistricting process. That’s why it is critical for us all to be involved in the redistricting process.

Why does redistricting matter?

Where district lines are drawn may determine where residents can vote, whom they can vote for, and even how responsive elected officials are to constituents’ requests. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder made Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, an important tool to protect against discriminatory redistricting, effectively inoperable. The U.S. Supreme Court has also refused to curb the practice known as “partisan gerrymandering,” which is when a political party manipulates the redistricting process for political advantage, regardless of what the voters want. This practice can sometimes negatively affect voters of color.  Without Section 5, jurisdictions with the worst records of racial discrimination in redistricting can implement redistricting plans without seeking pre-approval from the federal government. 

By preventing discriminatory voting practices from going into effect, Section 5 blocked discriminatory redistricting plans, as well as myriad other discriminatory schemes, before their implementation. Because the Supreme Court immobilized these protections against discrimination, the Shelby County ruling has had, and will continue to have, immense ramifications on redistricting and voting laws post-2020. Now, only a few jurisdictions that are covered by court orders are required to preclear their proposed redistricting plans and other voting laws. This means that many of the states and subdivisions that were notorious for enacting racially discriminatory voting policies may attempt to pass discriminatory redistricting policies following the 2020 Census, and we are left without federal oversight.

Since the federal government will no longer act to review discriminatory voting policies in advance, the redistricting process now lies with everyday citizens, especially Black, Latino, and Asian American voters, who are most vulnerable to disenfranchisement through discriminatory voting policies.

Power on the Line(s): Making Redistricting Work for Us is a guide to empower a broad set of audiences — including community members, and policy makers — to make their voices heard in the redistricting process including by participating in public redistricting hearings, holding legislators accountable in the redistricting process, and notifying civil rights organizations like LDF, MALDEF, and Advancing Justice | AAJC if there becomes a need to challenge discriminatory redistricting in court.

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