NASHVILLE, TN – Drive to the Gulf Coast for a holiday and by the time you get to the beach you will have crossed hundreds of invisible borders, most of them unnoted but nonetheless real.

Lines drawn on maps designate everything from state lines (each state gets two senators) to city council districts. Nashville has 35 of those. But it has 5 at Large council seats, too.

Maps can have overlapping lines for different things. Since the 1960s, congressional election districts all have had the same number of people living within their boundaries.

“The one explicit constitutional use of the census is to reassign seats in the House of Representatives,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Thomas Saenz is president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Census numbers are compiled and congressional districts drawn every ten years. There are 435 seats in the House. As populations shift one state could gain or lose seats.

After the 2010 Census, Texas gained four congressional seats. After the 2020 Census is tabulated, California may lose a seat for the first time in its history. When seats are apportioned where people live matters

Saenz said that for decades many states never redrew their election lines. It resulted in districts with a single representative but wildly different populations. That generally favored rural places over urban areas.

But a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s held that each state and locality must redraw their lines after the census to make the districts equal in population. Those rulings were dubbed the “One person one vote” doctrine.

The Census is key because it collects data on every person and where they live. That data is used to determine how much of the annual $1.5 trillion in in federal aid goes to communities for things like schools and hospitals. It also is used to set election district boundaries for the next ten years.

“We are suffering an impediment going into this next round of redistricting because in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court immobilized Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” said Leah Aden, Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF).

Aden said Section 5 was the heart of the Voting Rights Act and striking it down was a huge loss to voters of color. “This is the provision that would have required some localities to get federal approval before they could implement redistricting plans,” she said.

Leah Aden testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties June 25, 2019.

“Elected Officials use the redistricting process to try and entrench themselves in power and diminish the ability of Black, Latino, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other voters to participate,” she said.

This will be the first time states like Georgia, Texas, or Louisiana don’t have to show the federal government their election maps don’t make it worse for communities of color.

“It requires us to be very engaged in this next round or redistricting. But it can’t just be us. It can’t just be you. It has to be everyone because there are thousands of jurisdictions. Redistricting is done at every level of government.”

That includes Congressional districts, city councils, county commission, school boards, water boards and other legislative bodies. “We need to be in the room when people are considering how they are going to redraw the lines,” Aden said.

Litigators like Aden and Saenz use Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to kill bad maps when they can. District boundaries are supposed to allow voters equal chance to elect a candidate of their choice. In minority-majority districts like Atlanta, Black voters will likely elect someone who looks like them.

Although congressional districts are the same size in population, their shapes and sizes can differ widely depending upon how the lines are drawn and where they are drawn. Gerrymandering creates districts that favor one party or candidate over another.

The practice started in 1812 in Massachusetts and Southern states have since mastered the art.

For example, sometimes minorities are split into different districts. Cracking is when districts are drawn so as to divide a geographically compact minority community into two or more districts so that the minority community is not a significant portion of any district.

A close cousin, packing, is a form of vote dilution, prohibited under the Voting Rights Act, where a minority group is over-concentrated in a smaller number of districts than necessary. For example, when the Black population is concentrated into one district where it makes up 90% of the district, instead of two districts where it could be 50% of each district.

A crossover district is one in which minorities aren’t the majority but still reliably control the outcome of an election with some non-minority voters crossing over to vote with the minority group.

Southern states have historically drawn districts to disenfranchise minority voters. In recent years, Republicans have redrawn voting districts to win Congressional seats in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana.

“How the redistricting occurs is that mappers will take census blocks and combine them together to create the district that matches the number of units or seats for that level of government,” said Terry Ao Minnis, census director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). Minnis said redistricting can be used to exclude minority communities from political power or to ensure they get a fair share.

“It is really critical that our communities fully participate in and monitor the upcoming redistricting process to ensure out communities are heard and represented,” she said.

Former President Trump tried to hijack the 2020 Census by ordering the Census Bureau to count only registered voters, not the entire population. Civil rights groups sued and they won but not before precious time and resources were wasted. So Census data will be late this year and it may not be accurate. That worries voting rights activists.

Minnis said some census data will be released in late April and by then we will know how the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be distributed among the states. But the rest of redistricting data will not be released until September 30, 2021.

Terry Ao Minnis
poses with the late Congressman John Lewis in 2007. They met while working on reauthorizing certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“When the census data comes out, if we find that people don’t have trust in what they see in the census data, that will be a challenge to get people engaged in this really critical and important process that will have ramifications well beyond this year, potentially even well beyond this decade.”

Minnis said that’s what keeps her up at night.

“Voting is not about casting a ballot. Redistricting is not about having maps. It’s about putting people in power who are going to create policies that decide about whether you can have healthcare, whether criminal justice will ever be fair. It’s about being able to afford education. It’s about housing policy,” said LDF’s Aden.

She said that state election maps become a standard and a baseline for drawing local maps. “The ramifications are far reaching in terms of the time and practical policies that impact the communities we care about. That’s what these maps are about.” Aden said.

This story was brought to you by the Blue Cross Foundation of California and Ethnic Media Services.