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Gerrymandering could take power from booming communities of color

Communities of color are driving population growth in states like Texas, North Carolina and Florida, but gerrymandering could limit their representation in Congress as district lines are redrawn this year based on a complicated 2020 census and just plain politics.

Why it matters: When census counts are accurate and political boundaries fairly drawn, voters havemore control over how their community is represented in government.

Between the lines: Historically, two main tactics have been used to draw districts that dilute the voices of communities of color, experts say.

  1. Cracking: By drawing lines through a large community of color, their votes are swallowed by the largely white surrounding areas and their representation is limited.
  2. Consolidating: By packing as many people of color as possible into one district, their voices and power are centralized, rather than present in multiple districts. The result is better representation but less political power statewide.

What to watch: In 2013, the Supreme Court knocked out a section of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racial discrimination — largely in the South — to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before adopting their redistricting maps.

  • The requirement shed light on gerrymandered local districts, which doesn't get the same news coverage as congressional districts. Now "there may not be anybody there to notice; bring a lawsuit," Paul Smith, VP of litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, told Axios.
  • In addition, the Supreme Court recently blocked political gerrymandering cases from federal courts, ending legal recourse beyond state courts, except for racial gerrymandering cases.

There's no straightforward solution. Different communities of color have different preferences for how they think lines should be drawn to ensure that their political voice is heard — and different groups will disagree about whether their neighborhoods should be contained in one district or split among multiple districts.

What they're saying: The question is "whether those communities will actually receive that additional representation or whether districts will be drawn in a way to manipulate boundaries" to further empower white communities, Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program.

  • The coronavirus and the Trump administration's handling of the census during the pandemic have raised concerns about data accuracy on top of conventional undercounts of hard-to-reach groups such as immigrants. Data delays will also make the map-drawing process even more chaotic.
  • New maps can help growing Black and brown neighborhoods elect politicians who can better represent them and address issues that affect them at the local, state and federal level.
  • Census undercounts and partisan gerrymandering instead dilute the power of voters of color in their own communities.

What you can do: "It can be incredibly powerful just to say, 'I live here. My neighbors also live here.... We want to have a representative that represents us together,'" Justin Levitt, a national redistricting expert, told Axios.

The bottom line: Advocates are hopeful that this year's process will garner more public attention, forcing better accountability than in past years.

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