Problematic Redistricting in Tennessee

Release Date: September 25, 2020


The League Position

Congressional districts and government legislative bodies should be apportioned substantially on population. The League opposes partisan and racial gerrymandering that strips rights away from voters.

This is the second educational alert in this series. It discusses Tennessee’s redistricting process. This is the most recent process and was used in the 2010 redistricting and was based on the 2010 Census.

Background - Tennessee

In Tennessee, the state legislature is the redistricting entity. The Tennessee Constitution requires the General Assembly to apportion state senators and representatives after each decennial census. They must also apportion the nine Congressional Districts. According to the Constitution and other law, this apportionment must be substantially according to population.

In Tennessee, the Office of Local Government (OLG), within the State Comptroller’s Office, provides the liaison with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Redistricting Data Program. Using the data from the Census Bureau, the OLG provides analysis and staffing support to the appointed Tennessee redistricting committee.

The redistricting committee in Tennessee is composed of members of the ruling political party. Regardless of the party in power, the aim seems to have been to creatively redistrict to that party’s political advantage (i.e., political gerrymandering).

Even though Tennessee has not been designated a pre-clearance state because of past discriminatory gerrymandering practice, some of the recently enacted voter restrictions certainly appear to lean that way. According to several nonpartisan polls, Tennessee ranks 50th in voter turnout and 40 - 45th in voter registration. Much of this is due to legislated voting barriers.

Tennessee does not have a detailed procedure for redistricting in Tennessee but based on recent past history (after the 2010 Census):

  • the redistricting bills were introduced before the census data was even received. The bills would be used as templates for fill-in later;

  • following receipt of the census data, a small (3 or 4 member) redistricting committee (also known as a working group)---all majority party---was set up in the House;

  • an additional ad hoc committee, made up of the majority party leaders, was set up in both the house and senate of the General Assembly by the house leader (majority party);

  • working with these groups, the OLG analyzed the data and made proposed reapportionments based upon the directives established by the leadership (majority party);

  • it is not clear if any OLG or legal assistance was given to individuals or minority party members to explore alternative maps;

  • discussions of specific changes and analysis within the majority caucus appears to have begun many months before the upcoming legislative session (the session in which the redistricting plans are passed);

  • the working groups developed three plans: three House bills (Congressional, state senate and house) and three Senate bills (Congressional, state senate and house). It apparently is the custom for the House to accept the Senate’s plan and vice versa. Congressional redistricting is by negotiations and discussions between the House and Senate majority party leaders;

  • a redistricting web page was posted on the General Assemble website with little or no useful information on boundaries;

  • all three redistricting bills went through the House and Senate committee process within the first few days of the new legislative session;

  • all requests for delays and most requests for amendments were denied;

  • all three plans were adopted the first day of their first hearing in full committees and were on the floors of the senate and house for final vote within days;

  • during the hearing process, some proposed adjustments were made; most denied;

  • alternative plans proposed by the minority party for consideration failed;

  • The three reapportionment plans prepared by the majority leadership passed through the General Assembly and were signed by the Governor in January, effective upon signing.

According to the research of the Brennan Center for Justice, some indications of serious unfair redistricting:

  • no clear, prioritized, or published criteria for mapdrawing;

  • no independent selection process for those responsible for mapdrawing;

  • no attempt to ensure geographic, political, and ethnic diversity;

  • no approval rules that facilitate and incentivize negotiation and compromise;

  • no transparency requirements to make the proceeding as accessible as possible and encourage public input;

  • no indication of adequate funding for independent professional staff and subject matter experts;

  • no sufficient time in process to hold public hearings, obtain feedback on initial proposed maps, incorporate changes; and develop final maps;

  • no timely response for requests for substantive information on specific map changes.

Tennessee has all of these indicators for serious unfair redistricting. Unfortunately, with no clear criteria for the map drawing, this lopsided process will continue without public education, advocacy, and outcry for transparency and public input.

Next: The LWVTN approach to provide education and advocate for Tennessee voters.

Mary Ann Reeves