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Democracy’s Next Battleground

The voting maps that come out of the next redistricting will affect the political balance of power for many years.

February 17, 2021

Later this year, states will begin the process of redraw­ing their congres­sional maps. It’s the same fraught and abuse-prone process that happens every 10 years after the census count is final­ized. But in a new report released last week, Michael Li shows that the next round of redis­trict­ing in 2021 and 2022 will be the most chal­len­ging in recent history. The stakes could­n’t be any higher either: it could decide which party controls Congress for many years to come.

When Repub­lic­ans swept the midterms nation­wide in 2010, they were able to lock in gerry­manders that lasted a full decade. Since then, demo­graph­ics in the South and South­w­est have changed rapidly, and almost all of the growth of the eligible voting popu­la­tion comes from communit­ies of color. But that growth could mean very little for the polit­ical power of these communit­ies, with partisan gerry­man­der­ing still threat­en­ing to dimin­ish, or even erase, their polit­ical power. Flor­ida, Geor­gia, North Caro­lina, and Texas are at partic­u­lar risk of abuse.

What makes the upcom­ing process more chal­len­ging than the last?

As Ronald Brown­stein describes in his Atlantic piece cover­ing our new report, it will be the first since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Prior to the decision, the law required that states with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion (includ­ing those at-risk states) receive preclear­ance from the Justice Depart­ment for changes in their elec­tion laws, includ­ing redrawn maps. This redis­trict­ing cycle will be the first since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 where communit­ies of color will lack this protec­tion. It’s one of many reas­ons why Congress must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act (VRAA) and the For the People Act.

While there may not be enough time to fully restore the preclear­ance process before map draw­ing begins, certain provi­sions of the VRAA would at least give judges more leeway to block racially biased maps. And in the short run, the For the People Act would have an import­ant posit­ive impact on the upcom­ing redis­trict­ing. By estab­lish­ing uniform rules for draw­ing districts, banning partisan gerry­man­der­ing, and requir­ing more trans­par­ency in the map-draw­ing process, it could protect against the gravest threats to fair map draw­ing across the coun­try.

The upcom­ing redis­trict­ing process isn’t all bleak. As Li writes, “expect a tale of two coun­tries.” Newly enacted reforms in much of the coun­try will make it harder to force through partisan gerry­manders or racially discrim­in­at­ory maps. But in other states, there may be even greater room for unfair processes and results than in 2011. Unless Congress passes the For the People Act and the VRAA.