Redistricting must reflect America’s multiracial democracy – The Boston Globe
Across the country, congressional, state, and local districts are being redrawn. In some states, this once-a-decade rite of self-government is being undertaken by lawmakers; others have delegated the responsibility to officially nonpartisan — or at least bipartisan — boards. And while the redistricting process is always messy, this most recent cycle faces not just old challenges, but new ones: the Supreme Court’s 2019 refusal to put a stop to hyper-partisan gerrymandering and its 2013 evisceration of the Voting Right Act’s pre-implementation review of many redistricting plans.
As technical and disheartening as this all may sound, it would be a serious mistake to tune out or underestimate the immense influence these new district maps will hold over every American’s life. This impacts all of us and has particular importance for the ever-growing communities of color across our nation.
Many people would prefer to deny the reality that America has become more racially and ethnically diverse and that we will move toward the future as a multiracial democracy, so each of us must commit to playing some role in the necessary responses to the redistricting process’s shortcomings — public education and grass-roots engagement, policy intervention, and lawsuits. This multipronged response will help in ensuring that the maps that are proposed and ultimately adopted by officials are as fair and just as possible.
This won’t be easy, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each state, county, city, and town has its own set of communities and political dynamics. In some locations, for example, researchers may find that voters tend to coalesce along racial lines in their support for certain candidates. In other places, meanwhile, voting patterns may show that voters of color are less monolithic in their political outlook, or that minority voters and white voters who live side by side and face many of the same issues may prefer the same candidates. Getting this right will require a significant investment of energy, analysis, and time.
With so much political power in the balance, though, and with the impact those who hold that power can have on our everyday lives, it’s more than worth it. District lines may seem like abstractions, but their impacts are enormous. They not only determine who you can vote for; in an era of increasing voter suppression, especially against communities of color, they could also determine your ability to vote, period. And beyond access to the ballot, the politicians who will come out of these districts — whether they’re on the local, state, or congressional level — will make decisions with far-reaching consequences on issues such as livable wages, public utilities, education, and police misconduct.
Although there is no simple formula to ensure each proposed redistricting map is fair, there do exist some broad guidelines that everyone involved in the redistricting process can use as their North Star. Perhaps the most important one of all, given the central role of racial discrimination in voter suppression in America — both past and present — is to push for redistricting with a racial justice focus. That, in turn, requires prioritizing compliance with the Voting Rights Act and its essential principle: communities of color must have a full and equal chance to elect candidates of their choosing. Being in the minority cannot mean your community’s voice is not heard at all.
That may mean creating districts where people of color are in the majority — especially in locales where voting usually breaks down along racial lines and where there is a record of abusing the rights and interests of Black and other people of color. In locations where the demographic and legal circumstances do not allow for majority-minority districts — due to housing integration or gentrification or white crossover voting for minority-preferred candidates — or where voters of color do not need majority-minority districts, a racial justice focus for redistricting may mean establishing districts with racial minority plurality, multiracial, multiethnic voting coalitions that enable minority voters to influence election outcomes.
Regardless of the specific outcome, however, a racial-justice-focused approach to redistricting demands that each district and each community is evaluated on its own specific terms and within the context of its own specific history and present reality. It requires a real commitment to inclusion. And it necessitates a level of organized engagement, by all of us, in a deliberative, transparent process that centers the rights and interests of those who have been — and continue to be — excluded from enjoying the benefits of American democracy in full.
It’s a tall order. But here’s the good news: For all its hiccups and imperfections, multiracial democracy — the only true form of democracy the United States has ever known, even if only aspirationally — is worth it.
Leah C. Aden is deputy director of litigation, NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
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