People Powered Fair Maps: The League View

Release Date: Friday, September 25, 2020

The League of Women Voters of the United States has long been concerned about state redistricting efforts for their state congressional seats (both House and Senate) and U.S. Congressional seats.

Political and racial gerrymandering by state political parties have taken the one person-one vote concept and have distorted it to disenfranchise many voters. Since most states regulate their own redistricting plans, the political party in power uses this power to re-district according to their specific political whims.

The League of Women Voters of the United States has initiated a two-year program to strengthen this process to protect more voters. The League of Women Voters of Tennessee has received a substantial grant to implement the strategy and statement of work that we have proposed. We will strive for more transparency and more public input into this process.

This first alert will describe the national history on redistricting and how we got here; the second will describe Tennessee’s methods; and the third will lay forth our action plan to produce people powered fair maps.

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.

Background - National

The U.S. Constitution has equal protection requirements for its citizens under the 14th Amendment. These requirements have been firmly established for voting districts through a Supreme Court case (1962) that require population equivalency with voting districts to effectuate one person, one vote.

An additional law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), section 2, prohibited discriminatory voting practices and procedures of protected classes of people. A key provision of the Act provided for federal enforcement that prevented states (pre-clearance states) from making changes to voting laws and practices if the states had a history of voting discrimination.

Unfortunately, in 2013 the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the formula for deciding which states and localities have a history of voting discrimination was unconstitutional. This severely gutted the bill and weakened the federal government’s oversight of discriminatory voting practices.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act, H.R. 4 was passed in 2019 along party lines. It has never been allowed to be brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote. It was later re-introduced in the Senate and named the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It is still sitting there.

Since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, states and localities (particularly those who had been under pre-clearance) have brazenly pushed forward discriminatory changes to voting practices, such as changing district boundaries to disadvantage select voters; instituting more onerous voter identification laws; and changing polling locations with little notice. These laws especially disenfranchise young people, people of color, the elderly, low-income people, transgender people and people with disabilities.

However, political gerrymandering (which has been defined as the practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries) has also become a major issue in redistricting. While political gerrymandering has been in existence for many decades (and practiced by both political parties), it has taken on far more sophistication with modern computer and tracking technology.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court basically ruled that that the federal courts had no jurisdiction over state redistricting even when it is clear that political gerrymandering occurred. The states and their individual political dynamics can now determine their own districts without risk of federal oversight or federal court interference.

The Problem(s)

While the discriminatory gerrymandering and the political gerrymandering have some differences - they are irrefutably linked.

Discriminatory gerrymandering was controlled, but not eliminated, by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now free from federal oversight and federal control by the Supreme Court ruling of 2013 (which gutted much of the VRA of 1965), many states have enacted voting barriers that, for the most part, have targeted for discrimination those citizens with the least amount of political power.

This will not change until the Voting Rights Advancement Act (or something similar) is passed. This bill has passed the House of Representatives along partisan lines and has not been allowed to the Senate floor for a vote.

Court cases to control political gerrymandering won some early court rulings - many of which the League was either co-plaintiff or prepared court amicus briefs in cases against both parties. However, the appeals process took these cases to the Supreme Court which ruled in 2019 that federal courts had no jurisdiction in political gerrymandering. In their view, no Constitutional authority was being violated

The intersection of these two kinds of gerrymandering is that, many times, they target the same people.

In discriminatory gerrymandering, targeted are those legally defined as being in the protected classes: color, gender, age, place of origin, sexual identity, etc. These classes of people are currently unprotected under current rulings.

In political gerrymandering, some states may view these same classes of people as also more likely to vote for the minority party. This explicit bias lends itself to redistricting to dilute the votes of these classes. The system also allows retaliation of both same party or opposing party legislative members.

Coming Next: Tennessee’s redistricting methods

Mary Ann Reeves