As states and local governments across the country redraw political maps for every office from city council to US House of Representatives, gerrymandering is in the news a lot lately.
We’ll start with Alabama, where a federal court has struck down the state’s congressional map as a racial gerrymander. Although the US Supreme Court under its current conservative majority has decided that federal courts cannot weigh into partisan gerrymandering, state courts remain free to act in defense of democracy. Federal courts may also enforce what’s left of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires states to create majority-minority districts if an electorate is racially polarized.
Alabama’s legislature enacted a congressional map that was expected to produce a 6-1 Republican majority. The ACLU, NAACP, and other organizations sued, contending that the state’s black voters – which constitute about 27 percent of the population – were relegated to a single majority-minority district representing only 14 percent of the state’s population. They successfully argued that a second majority-minority district is required under the VRA.
“Black people drove a disproportionate share of Alabama’s population growth. Throughout last year, Black Alabamians publicly called on the Legislature to recognize this reality and sought equal representation in Congress,” said NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Senior Counsel Deuel Ross. “The state ignored these demands, but we are deeply gratified that the unanimous court found that Black voters deserve full representation now. We look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure that Black voters are fairly represented in any remedial map.”
“Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress,” a three-judge panel consisting of two Trump appointees and one Clinton appointee wrote in its opinion, striking down Alabama’s racial gerrymander.
In its ruling, the court gave the legislature fourteen days to produce a new map that creates two majority-minority districts. If the legislature fails to act, the court will do so itself. An appeal is likely.
Ohio maps struck down
Meanwhile, in Ohio, the state’s Supreme Court struck down a gerrymander of the state’s congressional map. As we previously reported, the Ohio Supreme Court previously struck down state legislative maps as an unconstitutional gerrymander.
As we noted:
The gerrymandered maps are the product of the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission, which includes five Republicans and two Democrats. The commission produced a map – over the objections of the two Democratic members – that was expected to give Republicans a 62-37 advantage in the state House and a 23-10 advantage in the state Senate.
That’s despite former president Trump only winning Ohio 53-45% during the 2020 presidential election. Such skewed maps were likely to result in a Republican majority in both chambers regardless of the will of voters – even during campaign cycles that strongly favored Democrats.
However, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 that curtailed gerrymandering within the state. The amendment requires the commission to create boundaries that result in politically competitive districts.
The same 4-3 majority that voted to strike down the state legislative maps also axed the congressional gerrymander. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, cast the deciding vote. According to an analysis of the approved Congressional map, Republicans were favored in 12 of 15 districts. To put that in perspective, Republicans were favored to win 80 percent of House districts versus the 53 percent that the party received at the top of the ballot in 2020.
What’s quite stunning is that the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision was even a split decision. The state constitution expressly forbids gerrymandering thanks to a voter-approved ballot initiative that received over 70 percent support. Yet three of the conservative justices on the state supreme court – including the son of the incumbent governor who served on the Ohio Redistricting Commission that produced the gerrymandered maps in the first place (and incidentally refused to recuse himself) – voted to uphold the maps as constitutional.
Tennessee Republicans crack Nashville
Not all news on the gerrymandering front has been good.
Tennessee is the latest state to enact its congressional maps. Like Alabama, the state’s Republicans are aiming to limit Democrats to a single congressional district in an aggressive racial gerrymander that cracks the city of Nashville into multiple districts.
Prior to the newly-enacted map, the city of Nashville resided in a single congressional district. Democrat Jim Cooper is the long-time representative of the solidly blue 5th Congressional District that Joe Biden won by 24 points in 2020. Cooper announced his retirement this week after the gerrymandered map passed the legislature.
Although Nashville is a Democratic bastion, the surrounding congressional districts are solidly Republican. The new map carves Nashville into three different districts that stretch out to take in rural counties. The effect is to dilute the votes of the city’s black and brown voters, swamping them with rural white Republicans.
As the Tennessean reports:
The share of the population made up by Black residents in Tennessee’s potential new 5th Congressional District would plummet. In the proposed new 7th, Black residents would account for 16% of the district’s population. In the new 6th, Black residents would account for less than 10%. In the 5th, the Black population would fall to 11.9%.
Black residents account for 24.3% of the population in the current 5th Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.
All of the new Nashville-based districts will have a Republican lean, although it’s conceivable that one or two of the districts may become competitive later in the decade if Nashville’s population continues to boom and newcomers from out of state bring left-leaning voting habits with them.
For now, the 5th Congressional District will go from D+9 to R+8. As for the rest of Tennessee’s congressional districts, the state is now looking at an 8-1 map where Democrats are relegated to a single VRA-protected district centered around Memphis.
The bottom line is that Tennessee Republicans are trying to muzzle Nashville’s black and brown voters, which should come as no surprise since this is a state that is censoring teachers on race. Expect a court fight in the weeks and months ahead.
Photo Credit: Jason Mrachina, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0