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South is becoming a flashpoint in the brewing redistricting war.

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The South is becoming a flashpoint in the brewing redistricting war.
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The South is becoming a flashpoint in the brewing redistricting war.

 

The partisan war over redistricting has only just started, but both sides have already settled on one point: it all comes down to the South.

From North Carolina to Texas, the once-in-a-decade war over redrawing political borders is expected to be a major battlefield. This is due to an increasing population, a predominantly one-party government, and a modern legal environment that eliminates federal regulation and delays civil rights challenges.

It’s a confluence of factors that’s likely to tip the scales dramatically in the GOP’s favor: experts say the new maps in the South alone could force Democrats out of power in the House next year — and possibly well beyond.

“The South would really stand out,” said Ryan Weichelt, a redistricting expert at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Six of the ten new congressional seats expected this year will almost certainly be in Southern states, with one in North Carolina, two in Florida, and three in Texas.

Republicans control the legislatures in those states, giving them near-total control over how the new districts are drawn — a stark contrast to other parts of the country, where state governments are either divided or nonpartisan commissions are tasked with redistricting congressional and state legislative lines.

Finally, the Justice Department would not immediately review new legislative maps in nine predominantly Southern states to ensure they do not discriminate for the first time in more than 50 years.

Deuel Ross, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said, “It’s a very different landscape than it’s been for the past 50 years.”

As the region’s population has expanded, primarily due to an influx of Democratic-leaning immigrants, Republicans are under increased pressure to improve their political status. This has eroded the GOP’s hold on power, most notably in Georgia, where Democrats recently won a presidential election and two Senate races.

The group has already set its sights on a number of goals. They have the option of attacking Political Leaders in Georgia. By adding more conservative voters from far north of Atlanta to the districts of Lucy McBath or Carolyn Boudreaux, or both, more conservative voters would be added to the two lawmakers’ districts.

In Florida, they may try to saturate Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s district with new Republican voters by carving out a new seat in the Orlando area, one of two that the state is expected to add.

And in Texas, where the GOP is projected to capture three congressional seats, the most of any state, the GOP can try to carve out more seats in the heart of the state’s boom — Democratic-leaning Houston — where Republicans can still win.

Currently, a gain of five seats will give the GOP control of the Chamber. Depending on the results of special elections for many vacant seats, the number could rise or fall before November 2020.

To be sure, there will be limits to how much leverage Republicans will gain with a new map, both legally and practically. Though they have influence over the mechanism, Southern demographic patterns are working against them. Many of the immigrants are college-educated, culturally diverse, and young, both of whom Republicans have had trouble converting.

As a result, the party can only draw a certain number of “clean” districts. Furthermore, since these states are experiencing rapid growth, attempts to divide major cities like Houston and Atlanta perfectly may collapse over time as tens of thousands of new residents move in.

“You have all these countervailing factors,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist based in Florida. “Democrats are doing well in suburban areas, states are becoming more diverse, and Republicans dominate all levers of government.”

Control in the South has a tradition of rigging the electoral process to disempower Black voters, from voting laws to district maps. In Georgia, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature is reacting to Democrats’ recent gains and former President Donald Trump’s false allegation of voter fraud with a slew of anti-voting bills, including one that would end Sunday early voting, which is common among Black churchgoers.

Such limits would not have been necessary eight years ago, when any reforms in states with a history of voting rights abuses had to be approved by the Justice Department ahead of time. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down federal rules requiring Georgia and eight other states to “preclear” voting and redistricting reforms. It ruled that the federal formula based on past violations by the states was obsolete.

New voter identification laws were quickly enforced in many states, including Texas, North and South Carolina. Some civil rights groups are worried that the party will abuse the lack of transparency in redistricting as well.

“If they use what appears to be a lie about voter fraud in 2020 to pass new voting restrictions in Georgia and Texas, I assume the same would happen when the Census data is released” to kick off the redistricting process, according to Ross.

The Voting Rights Act makes it unconstitutional to redistrict on the basis of race. However, proving a breach in court may take years, causing several elections to take place with maps that could later be found to be unconstitutional. For example, in North Carolina, where the Republican legislature has sole redistricting authority without input from the state’s Democratic governor, the legislature drew racially gerrymandered maps in 2010. Those charts, however, remained in place for two House elections before being redrawn, costing the Republicans two seats.

“It means a state can participate in midnight gerrymandering and effectively avoid court scrutiny, run elections with gerrymandered maps, and get away with it before the next election,” Kathay Feng, Common Cause’s redistricting director, explained.

Even if Republican legislatures went down the path of racial gerrymandering, which, he noted, could still result in damaging lawsuits and injunctions against maps from federal judges, said Jason Torchinsky, general counsel of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, there are significant limits on what they could accomplish.

“This notion that the lack of preclearance will leave minorities vulnerable is false,” Torchinsky stated.

Some Republicans warn that the party’s power over the rules and boundaries should not be used to replace persuasion. It must continue to use ideas to win over newcomers in the South.

“We need to remind these new residents that they’re moving to these states, ideally, because of Republican policies,” said Hooff Cooksey, a Republican strategist in Virginia.

Virginia serves as a cautionary tale for Republicans, as the state went from being solidly Republican to solidly Democratic as the growing, educated population in the Washington, D.C. suburbs turned against the GOP. In 2016, a federal court redrawn the state’s maps after finding that the legislature, which was split between both parties, and the Republican governor had used racial criteria improperly in redistricting.

Virginia’s legislative maps are now drawn by a nonpartisan commission after Democrats took control of the statehouse in 2019.

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