Redistricting Battle Heats Up Across the U.S.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. This is The Takeaway, and this is one of the most important musical tracks ever made.
Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?
The people that you meet each day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Who are the people in your neighborhood? For more than 50 years, the Sesame Workshop has asked this question as it teaches its young viewers about the many different professions, trades, jobs, and gigs that contribute to the vibrant ecosystem of community. How would you respond to the question? Who are the people in your neighborhood? Are you from Chicago, south side?
Ari Berman: It's dark and we're wearing sunglasses, hit it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you rep the 504? Are you Brooklyn-born and bred?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Or are you straight out of Compton?
Melissa Harris-Perry: A big part of our identities is it's rooted in the places where we live and the people who live near us, but there's a community identity that you rarely hear people reference in order to explain who they are, congressional district. I can't think of any film where the tough guy gangster says, don't mess with me, I'm from Nevada's third congressional district, or any country music ballad, with a nostalgic chorus extolling Tennessee's fifth congressional district.
Even the most educated and civic-minded among us would have a pretty hard time correctly identifying the district of our State House or State Senate, yet these political neighborhoods are foundational to so many aspects of our lives. Depending on the district where you live, your political voice can be drowned out, or it can be echoed or amplified.
Right now we are in the thick of redistricting efforts. Lawmakers across the country are using 2020 census data to determine the boundaries of your political neighborhood for the next decade. This year, it is Republicans who stand to gain the most. Republicans control 30 state legislatures, Democrats only 18, and then there are two that are split.
It is in those state legislatures where most redistricting happens. Republicans only need to gain five seats to win a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterms, and here is Republican representative Ronny Jackson from Texas at the Faith and Freedom Conference in June.
Ronny Jackson: We have everything working in our favor right now. We have redistricting coming up and the Republicans control most of that process in most of the states around the country. That alone should get us the majority back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Who are the people in your neighborhood? Well, that might be changing a lot in the next few months. Here with me is Ari Berman, senior reporter at Mother Jones. Ari, it's always great to have you here.
Ari Berman: Hey, Melissa, great to talk to you again, and that was one of the more lively intros to a discussion about redistricting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You got to keep the people in here with the neighborhood, but honestly, I find it and I know that you do because we're nerds on this like deeply interesting and compelling and stressful when I hear Ronny Jackson say that redistricting alone can get the majority back, ah, that doesn't feel terrible democratic with a little 'd' to me.
Ari Berman: It doesn't feel terribly democratic because it feels like the election results have already been predetermined before the elections have even begun. Virtually, every knowledgeable political commentator believes that Ronny Jackson is right, that Republicans will be able to gerrymander enough seats to take back the House from that alone, no matter what the national environment is.
We published a story at Mother Jones a little while ago based on analysis from a democratic firm called Target Smart that found that Republicans could pick up anywhere from 6 to 13 seats in just four states alone, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas through redistricting. Republicans are in major control of this process and by all indications, they're going to be very aggressive in terms of the maps that they're going to draw in these states.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me understand this. Some of those states that you named have additional seats allocated to them, additional congressional districts, and that allocation happened largely because of population change over the last 10 years, and that population change mostly had to do with the growth of populations that are typically pretty Democratic. How is it that Republicans are going to benefit from those new seats?
Ari Berman: That's what gerrymandering is all about. It's about manipulating the data to achieve a certain outcome, and there's a paradox here. The paradox is the country is growing because of communities of color. The white population actually shrank according to the latest census for the first time since 1790. You look at a state like Texas, 95% of the population growth is from communities of color. As a result, Texas gained two congressional seats, but everyone expects those seats instead are going to go to white Republicans.
You have this paradox, that growth is coming for communities of color. Therefore those seats under fair map should go to communities of color. Instead, they're going to go to white Republicans who are shrinking demographically but increasing their numbers politically.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. That just seems counter to the point. You're supposed to count every 10 years, figure out how many Americans there are, divvy up for fair maps. How can you have a fair process if the growing population of color turns into a growing population of elected officials who are actually not from those communities? What are some of the alternative ways to draw maps so that they feel more fair?
Ari Berman: That's the big difference between redistricting, which is just redrawing the maps to reflect population changes, and gerrymandering, which is manipulating the maps to achieve a partisan or other outcome. The alternatives to them are, one, are independent redistricting commissions, which are meant to take the politics out of the process and have been adopted in a number of states.
Another thing would be state or federal legislation banning the kind of partisan or racial gerrymandering that is likely to be done in places like Texas. The Freedom to Vote Act recently introduced by Senate Democrats, for example, would have criteria basically saying you can't draw maps to achieve an unfair partisan or racial advantage. Meaning that if lawmakers engage in the kind of gerrymandering that they're very likely to engage in, that there would go before the courts and there would be metrics that the courts would be able to enforce to block these kind of map.
The alternative is either to try to do it in a way that takes power out of the hands of politicians that are drawing the maps or puts limits on what the politicians in power can do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Let's just walk through a few different possibilities. All right. Let's say you're trying to increase the opportunity for African Americans in any given state or Latinos in any given state to elect representatives who reflect their community. Is it better, Ari, in that scenario to, A, have maps that mostly put Black folks, even if they're in various cities, and not geographically tied to each other, to put them all together into one or maybe two districts, or is it better to spread those Black or brown folks out and maybe get white Democrats or Democrats who are not as reflective of the community?
Ari Berman: This is a robust debate within the Democratic Party right now. For many years, the idea was that you needed a large percentage of minority voters to be able to elect minority candidates. Now there is a changing view that you don't need so many, that Black Democrats, Latino Democrats can get elected from what are known as crossover districts, districts where there may be a majority of minority voters, but there may not be, it may be 40% Latino or 40% African American, or a mix.
In Texas, for example, there's lots of districts that are 15% Asian American, 20% Black, 20% Latino, and the rest white. Those are electing minority lawmakers because the country is changing demographically, we now have coalition districts, right, Melissa? Places like Atlanta and places like Houston, places like Dallas, it's not one race or ethnicity. It's lot of different ones living together, not just living in the cities, but now living in the suburbs and some cases, even the ex-surbs.
This is changing and I think the future of America is multiracial and the future of districts in these places will also be multiracial. The question is when it comes to how the lines are drawn, will those communities be kept together or will they be split apart in such a way that minority voters are dispersed instead of being in one or two congressional districts, they're dispersed among 3, 4, 5 congressional districts so they don't really have influence in any of them to elect their candidates of choice.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there a handful of states or districts that you are watching most closely this time around?
Ari Berman: I'm watching the four Southern states that the Brennan Center for Justice says is at most at risk of extreme partisan and racial gerrymandering, which, as I mentioned earlier, is Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. These are states that have engaged in extreme racial and partisan gerrymandering in the past. It's also places where they have full control of the process by Republicans and they're likely to be very aggressive. It's also places where demographic changes should favor Democrats, but the maps are likely to be drawn in a way that favors Republicans.
Those aren't the only states that are going to be doing gerrymandering, there's going to be other Republican-controlled states doing it. There's going to be other Democratic-controlled states like New York, where I live, that are probably going to do it.
Those four states in the south I think are really the key to what ends up happening with the state legislative level and also what ends up happening in terms of control of the US House.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Those states have this great impact both on literally where people live in terms of the districts they're assigned to and then obviously, then who will be elected to Congress. What does that mean for public policy agendas for the current members of Congress who are trying to get some things done before these midterms and, of course, for President Biden?
Ari Berman: I think for the current members of Congress, they should realize they might not be in the majority much longer. Everyone believes that Republicans are going to take back the US House, probably just through redistricting alone. Certainly, redistricting can combine with what is not a great national environment for Democrats and they only have a five-seat majority, it certainly seems like the likelihood now is that Democrats are going to lose the House. Meaning that Joe Biden won't be able to pass any major pieces of legislation, most likely.
Time is running out for Democrats. Time is running out for Democrats to pass legislation writ large. Time is also running out for Democrats to pass the kind of voting rights legislation that would stop the kind of gerrymandering that we're talking about. Because, as I mentioned earlier, the Freedom to Vote Act introduced by Senate Democrats would stop this kind of gerrymandering, but it's only going to stop it if it passes. It's only going to stop it if it passes before these maps go into effect, which some states have already passed redistricting maps, but most states are going to do it in the coming weeks and months.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What's the likelihood that we can get that passed, that Democrats can get that passed?
Ari Berman: There's no likelihood if they don't alter or reform the filibuster in the Senate. Right now, there are not 50 Democratic votes in the Senate to do that. There are not 50 Democratic votes to pass voting rights legislation or many other pieces of legislation as a result.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have any optimism about this for the future, Ari?
Ari Berman: I have optimism in that people are more aware of it, but that awareness has to translate into legislative action. So far, there's been an asymmetry between Republicans being very aggressive about their power on the local and state level, but Democrats not being as aggressive about using their power at the federal level.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ari Berman is a senior reporter at Mother Jones and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Ari, thank you for joining us.
Ari Berman: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Melissa.
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