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Analysis

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.

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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.