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Courts strike down Alabama and Ohio gerrymanders as Tennessee cracks Nashville

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 MrachinaFlickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Ohio Supreme Court strikes down state legislative maps as unconstitutional gerrymander

The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the state’s gerrymandered legislative maps on Wednesday in a victory for advocates of fair elections.

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 commission is required to attempt to draw a plan in which the statewide proportion of Republican-leaning districts to Democratic-leaning districts closely corresponds to those percentages,” the Ohio Supreme Court majority wrote, rebutting Republican commissioners who contended that the constitutional amendment was merely “aspirational” in nature. “Section 6 speaks not of desire but of direction: the commission shall attempt to achieve the standards of that section.”

“We reject the notion that Ohio voters rallied so strongly behind an anti-gerrymandering amendment to the Ohio Constitution yet believed at the time that the amendment was toothless,” the majority added.

The Ohio Supreme Court has a 4-3 Republican majority. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, cast the deciding vote.

In addition to the state legislative maps, the Ohio Supreme Court is also considering a challenge to Ohio’s Congressional map, which is even more skewed in favor of Republicans. According to an analysis of the approved Congressional map, Republicans are favored in 12 of 15 districts – 80 percent of districts versus the 53 percent that the party received at the top of the ballot.

“This case is about how the General Assembly has thumbed its nose at these reforms and enacted a plan that palpably violates Article 19’s new anti-gerrymandering protections,” attorney Ben Stafford told the Ohio Supreme Court, which is expected to decide on whether to throw out the Congressional map in the coming weeks.

Photo Credit: Sixflashphoto, CC BY-SA 4.0

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Biden backs filibuster reform

In an important shift, President Biden now appears to be on board with reforming the filibuster.

According to Vanity Fair:

Biden indicated in an interview Tuesday that while he remains set against eliminating the filibuster entirely, he will support efforts to reform it, making the procedure what he says it was originally “supposed to be.” “I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster. You have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days,” Biden told George Stephanopoulos in an ABC News interview. “You had to stand up and command the floor. You had to keep talking.”

Biden, who spent decades in the upper chamber, reveres the body’s traditions and, both as senator and vice president to Barack Obama, was known for his knack for bipartisan dealmaking. In ascending to the presidency after four years of polarization under Donald Trump, Biden expressed confidence that cooperation between Democrats and Republicans would be possible and that he could work within the existing system to deliver for the American people. He’s by no means abandoning those aspirations. But, he acknowledged to Stephanopoulos, the filibuster has helped bring the Senate to the point where “democracy is having a hard time functioning.”

That should be a welcome line for the growing number of Democrats who have called for the filibuster to be eliminated or reformed, particularly with Mitch McConnell and the GOP threatening to exploit the tool to thwart efforts to fight back against their disenfranchisement crusade in states across the country. (McConnell on Tuesday blasted efforts to reform the filibuster, saying it was the only thing preventing a “scorched-earth Senate.”) “He’s being vague about it, but that’s alright…As a student and creature of the Senate, he certainly knows how to choose his words carefully on this subject,” said Senator Dick Durbin of the interview. “But I think he’s acknowledging the obvious: the filibuster has really shackled the Senate.” Biden isn’t going as far as some progressives would like, but reforming the filibuster to make it more difficult to use is something that could still make a difference in terms of the power McConnell’s minority party can wield. 

If you follow us regularly, you’ll know that we are supporters of reforming or eliminating the filibuster. The filibuster stands in the way of pro-democracy reforms like the For the People Act and Washington DC statehood. The filibuster is also stymying efforts to combat state-level voter suppression.

Having the president of the United States as an ally to your cause is important, especially if you want to convince members of his party to change the rules in the Senate.

Watch the relevant part of the interview below: