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Understanding Redistricting Through Demographic Change, Not Horse Race Politics

Translating the country’s population growth and demographic change into representational opportunities is at the heart of drawing new voting maps.

Tamir Kalifa/Getty
View the entire Redistricting and Changing Demographics in Key States series

The process of redraw­ing elect­oral districts for Congress and state legis­latures around the coun­try has begun. In the coming weeks and months, there will be much comment­ary about these maps. Invari­ably, for report­ers and others watch­ing the process, the tempta­tion will be to analyze them through the simpli­fied lens of a battle between the major parties, focused on polit­ical winners and losers.

But redis­trict­ing isn’t just a story about the partisan effects of maps. The goal of the process is to trans­late popu­la­tion shifts and demo­graphic changes into elect­oral districts. And so, the most consequen­tial story is that of real-world impact of maps on communit­ies, and in partic­u­lar communit­ies of color.

Last decade, communit­ies of color powered the coun­try’s growth — account­ing for all popu­la­tion increase for the first time in history. Draw­ing lines that reflect this emer­ging multiracial and multi­eth­nic Amer­ica has never been more urgent given the persist­ent under­rep­res­ent­a­tion of these communit­ies.

Black, Latino, and Asian house­holds are increas­ingly moving to suburbs, trans­form­ing histor­ic­ally homo­gen­ous urban outskirts into diverse areas. These emer­ging communit­ies should be able to trans­late their pref­er­ences into repres­ent­at­ives that will bring their perspect­ives and exper­i­ences into legis­lat­ive cham­bers and provide their constitu­ents with neces­sary services. As states and local­it­ies redraw maps, they should be assessed for how well they capture these changes.

To spot­light the coun­try’s evol­u­tion, we analyzed the demo­graphic trends of the past decade in four states: Flor­ida, Geor­gia, North Caro­lina, and Texas.

These analyses focus on the racial and ethnic groups that are driv­ing growth and the geographic distri­bu­tion of popu­la­tion changes across the states. The goal is to shed light on the demo­graphic and social trans­form­a­tions that should guide the redis­trict­ing cycle and be visible in adop­ted maps.

All four states tell similar stor­ies of rapid popu­la­tion growth. All feature a redis­trict­ing process domin­ated by a single party, and all have an ugly recent history of redis­trict­ing abuses and racial discrim­in­a­tion. More import­antly, all have seen signi­fic­ant gains among nonwhite popu­la­tions in once mostly white suburbs that were specific­ally designed to exclude people of color. And, in all, grow­ing communit­ies of color have already star­ted to trans­form the balance of power, threat­en­ing to upend long­stand­ing power struc­tures.

For example, in Geor­gi­a’s Gwin­nett County outside Atlanta, Black, Latino, and Asian communit­ies have mobil­ized to change the polit­ical land­scape at all levels of govern­ment, in many cases, over­com­ing resist­ance from the white estab­lish­ment. The same is true in Sugar Land, Texas, once defined by white flight from nearby Hous­ton and now 41 percent Asian and 62 percent nonwhite. Areas around Char­lotte and the Research Triangle in North Caro­lina and Orlando, Flor­ida, follow similar trends.

Map draw­ers in these states will face choices about how to treat these diver­si­fy­ing communit­ies.

In some places, communit­ies of color will have grown large enough to be able to file legal chal­lenges to unfair maps under voting rights laws. But even where lawsuits are not possible, discre­tion­ary decisions will be made about the creation of new elect­oral oppor­tun­ity for size­able — and grow­ing — minor­ity communit­ies.

If history is any guide, it is unlikely that those hold­ing the pen will embrace the multiracial and multi­eth­nic future. And so, the threat of another decade of discrim­in­at­ory maps looms. Unfor­tu­nately, Congress has not yet acted to strengthen the legal protec­tions for communit­ies of color by passing legis­la­tion like the Free­dom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act.

But that inac­tion should not be used as a green light for draw­ing districts that dilute the influ­ence of Black, Latino, and Asian communit­ies. As states release new district maps, care­ful atten­tion should be paid to whether the next decade’s polit­ical bound­ar­ies accur­ately capture a trans­formed Amer­ica or whether discrim­in­at­ory line draw­ing and back­lash against communit­ies of color under­mine fair repres­ent­a­tion for another decade.