Expect lawsuits to abound once lawmakers finish redrawing political boundaries sometime this fall.
“I think there’s going to be a fair amount of litigation on the back end,” Marina Jenkins, director of litigation and policy at the National Redistricting Foundation, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “The greedier the legislature gets, the more they open themselves to litigation.”
The National Redistricting Foundation is a four-year-old Washington, D.C. nonprofit that challenges voting rights infractions and other political malfeasance including gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a 200-year-old term that refers to a practice in which one political party manipulates political boundaries to gain unfair advantage.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling (Shelby vs. Holder) opened the floodgate that led to today’s current political climate, Jenkins said. The high court’s ruling removed federal oversight over changes southern states make to voting or election rules. It also ultimately led to Georgia’s new restrictive election law, she added.
“That is really a voter suppression law that is, I think, terrible,” Jenkins said of Georgia’s new law. “But it also signals what we are expecting to see in the redistricting cycle. It’s the desire to hold on to power by the party that is in power by sort of manipulating and altering the system for voting in a way that suppresses particular voters.”
Jenkins spoke to ACC Democracy reporter Tammy Joyner in a wide-ranging 20-minute interview about the upcoming redistricting season. Here is that conversation which has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. Are we likely to see major redrawing of districts, to the point where people won’t even know what district they’re in? Or is it going to be more along the lines of tweaking where you might move the line a little bit over here to bring in more whites in this area and put blacks over in that area? What are we likely to see?
A. Yeah. It’s a good question. In some ways, we might like to see more of an overhaul. As a general matter, we as an organization advocate for maps to be drawn fresh, right? To the extent there’s prior gerrymandering baked into a map, it doesn’t sort of persist, simply because, well, that’s how the map used to look and we want the map to look as closely as possible to the old map. That being said, the thing that’s really going to matter the most is keeping communities together. In some instances, there have been communities that have been split in the past that need to be brought back together. And in some instances, there will be communities that have traditionally been together but may be packed in a way that causes dilution and so (it) may be unpacking (may be necessary in) some districts. So certainly we would expect a fair amount of folks to maybe find themselves in new districts but not necessarily everywhere. Hopefully, what we will advocate for is that if you find yourself in that position that it’s been done for a positive reason, I’m not particularly that optimistic, if that is what we’ll see. There’s also the possibility that the party in power that controls the pen will slice and dice communities without much regard to what they look like.
Q. How can individuals influence or have input in the redistricting process? There are some organizations that will work with community members to draw their own maps to give people a hands-on feel for what this all means. Will that have any influence on lawmakers or is (redistricting) pretty much a done deal?
A. Well, I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t think it had some influence. I do think it will have some influence. There’s gonna be a little bit of tension, maybe even between sort of expectations from a statewide or even national level, on these map drawers who are state legislators who are closer to the people to the extent of holding them accountable and sort of elevating the issue, making sure folks are aware that their legislator is or is not doing the right thing with respect to redistricting.
Q. Do you foresee some communities going to court and if so, do the current maps stay in place until it’s decided that the new map or whatever they do goes into place?
A. It’s a very good point and it’s a very unfortunate element or consequence of the loss of preclearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. We still have section two of the Voting Rights Act, You can still make a racial gerrymandering claim. There are state requirements under the state constitution that could be pursued. But that kind of offensive litigation can take years. So, it’s very important to try and do as much as possible on the front end.
Q. Is gerrymandering likely to happen throughout the country or more likely to happen in the south where federal approval was necessary to change in election rules have been lifted?
A. Yeah, it is an issue throughout the country but I do think the states that used to be under preclearance will probably be a place where we expect to see a lot of bad behavior, particularly in states with growing populations with demographics that are shifting. You’re going to see a real effort by the folks already in power, particularly in states like Georgia and Texas, to hold on to that (power). Unfortunately, (U.S. Supreme Court) Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his Shelby County decision, times have changed,If anything, the past year has put the nail in that coffin. So it is a concern. The recent wave of legislation. It’s not only limited to (southern) states. Iowa passed the first of these sort of wave of suppression bills that we’re now seeing in Georgia and Florida and Texas. It’s popping up in other places.
Q. A lot of people say this is all partisan politics. But is there some element of race involved? Is there some concern by whites that they may no longer be in power now that the United States is becoming more diverse and shifting in demographics? Is there some element of concern by whites that this country is quickly becoming no longer their country?
A. You’re getting to the heart of the matter. Particularly in places in the south, you have a Republican party that’s almost exclusively White. You have multiracial coalitions in Georgia and you have a plurality of communities that can put their political power together. That’s a real dynamic. It’s a real thing that’s happening across the country. The year in which the United States will stop being a majority white country is creeping up on us. The Trump administration tried to… add the citizenship question (to the census) and the suppressing and the politicizing of the census bureau processes (in order) to control who is counted. And then where people are placed in their district absolutely has as much to do with race as it does party.
Here’s more information on the National Redistricting Foundation.