DETROIT – Adam Hollier is an Army Reserve lieutenant, paratrooper, originally from Detroit, Democrat, and black man. He is also a state senator who represents a predominantly black district that stretches across the northeast of his economically battered and resilient hometown. This critical mass of black voters, Hollier argues, ensures him a chance to be elected and to give voice to people who have long been ignored by the political system.
Rebecca Szetela is a self-described lawyer and white woman who chairs Michigan’s new Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission. His job is to redraw the lines of legislative seats to promote more partisan competition in a state where Republicans have dominated the legislature for decades. Szetela and other commissioners argue that one of the best ways to do this and to hold minority voters accountable is to place some of the predominantly black neighborhoods in Hollier District in other seats, where they might have more say over Michigan’s leadership.
For Hollier’s 2nd Senate District, that means some of its Detroit neighborhoods would be grafted onto predominantly white neighborhoods, and its own seat would stretch out on Eight Mile Road, the infamous border between Detroit and its first majority suburb. White. Its black voting age population would drop to 42%.
Hollier, like other black lawmakers, is furious, saying the move puts black elected officials at risk. “Overall, black people vote black and white people vote white,” Hollier said. “It’s just the reality. It has nothing to do with me. Draw cards that predominantly black communities can win.”
Whether Hollier is right is at the heart of a heated debate over how to ensure that racial and ethnic minority communities can elect whoever they want. The fight is complicated and wobbly – like most surrounding the once-in-a-decade redistribution process. But the stakes are clear: Blacks, Latin Americans and Asian Americans are under-represented in state legislatures.
For decades, the widely accepted strategy was to regroup black voters into a majority in a state house or congressional district. This principle was enshrined in the Federal Voting Rights Act, which requires the establishment of constituencies with a majority or a plurality of black voters – or other minority racial or ethnic group – in places where the white population usually prevents them from electing their chosen one. representatives.
This strategy was reinforced by partisan politics. Republicans have been happy to draw ridings with large numbers of black voters because black voters are overwhelmingly pro-Democrats. The effect was to regroup Democrats in just a few districts and leave other parts of the state more secure for Republicans.
But politics have changed dramatically since the law was passed in 1965. Today, only 18 of the 53 members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been elected from predominantly African-American districts. Rising black politicians like Rep. Antonio Delgado and Rep. Joe Neguse represent the heavily white areas of New York’s Hudson River Valley and Boulder, Colorado, respectively.
“I think we are in a new era now,” said Bakari Sellers, a former African-American lawmaker from the state of South Carolina. “If you’re talented enough, you can win in a district that’s 30-35 percent black.… We can be more competitive across the country.”
But it’s a tough sell to some lawmakers and advocates pushing to put more people of color into state houses and Congress. Black lawmakers make up less than 10% of state lawmakers in the United States, although 14.2% of the population is black, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Latinos make up 18.7% of the population and only 5.3% of state legislators. Asians represent 2% of legislators but 7.2% of the population.
In Nevada, Latinos and other activist groups have opposed maps drawn by the Democratic-controlled legislature because the plan has spread Latinos widely in congressional and state legislature districts to increase the chances of Democratic victories. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has asked a commission to come up with maps to counter those drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature. But black and Latino Democrats opposed the commission’s cards because they would scatter minority voters across multiple districts.
“I completely understand what the Republicans have done, but I’m not ready to sacrifice black representation and brown representation, I just am not,” said Senator Lena Taylor, one of the two Afro Democrats. -American women in the Wisconsin State Senate, which voted against her party’s card.
The other, Senator LaTonya Johnson, disagreed, saying the Democratic plan was much better than the alternative: “I don’t think the proposed cards would block prime black candidates, but I would rather have to fight harder for my seat that my community suffers another 10 years under a Republican gerrymander. “
The risks of balancing the racial makeup of districts were illustrated in this month’s Virginia election. Two black Democratic delegates narrowly lost their seats in still predominantly African-American constituencies – but had recently been redesigned to have fewer black voters. Control of the House of Delegates will boil down to two other races that are in recount.
Jonathan Cervas, one of the experts who redesigned Virginia’s districts in 2019, said the goal was to rectify what a court had ruled to be discrimination against black voters. He argued that the Voting Rights Act does not guarantee that black lawmakers will always be re-elected. “The problem is, the Democrats had a bad election,” Cervas said.
Yet the move towards unpacking districts is likely to result in a turnover of legislatures and Congress. In North Carolina, a new GOP-approved card reduced the share of black voters in Democratic Representative GK Butterfield’s district from 45% to 38%. The nine-term African-American congressman announced his resignation this month and called the new card “racially gerrymandered.”
At the other extreme, Democrats filed a lawsuit this month alleging that Republicans in Alabama improperly crammed black voters into the state’s 7th Congressional District, making it home to nearly one in three African Americans in the state.
A quarter of Alabama’s population is black, but 7th is the only district represented by an African American in Congress, Representative Terri Sewell. It is also the only district owned by Democrats in the state. Democrats say a more even distribution of black voters could help gain a second.
Increasing competition is one of the goals of the Michigan commission, which voters created in 2018 after decades of Republican-controlled partisan gerrymandering. The commission is also responsible for examining the representation of minority communities and for monitoring the law on voting rights.
He is proposing maps that would reduce the number of black-majority districts from two to zero in Congress and from about a dozen to three in the Legislature, pending final votes. Commissioners argue that there is evidence that black candidates can still win elections. In 2020, for example, racial minorities won 19 of 20 legislative seats where blacks make up at least 35% of the voting age population.
“What we have done is take these areas and divide them into several districts so that there are actually more districts where the minority voters can elect their candidates of choice, which should actually have the effect of d ‘Increase representation within the African American community, “says Szetela.
But Republicans and others, including the state’s director of civil rights, predict legal problems ahead.
Jamie Roe, a GOP consultant who tracks the redistribution process, noted that Michigan has had two predominantly black congressional districts since at least the 1960s – whether drawn by lawmakers or the courts.
“They are terribly open to a challenge to the Voting Rights Act,” he said.
Riccardi reported from Denver.
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