Erik (HASH) Hersman via Flickr creative commons
While the periodic redrawing of congressional and legislative districts extends back to the late 1700s, gerrymandering has only become a recent concern for voters, said Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University at a South By Southwest panel on Friday.
During the Austin conference's “Fighting Gerrymandering in 2021” panel, Li said lawmakers interested in curbing partisan gerrymandering had difficulty passing reforms up until a decade ago, because most voters didn’t even know it was a problem.
But, now, with congressional and legislative districts across the country being redrawn in 2021, voters are paying attention. In recent elections, their awareness of gerrymandering has resulted in more engagement at the polls, Li added.
“For many, it’s about taking power out of the hands of politicians,” he said.
San Antonio includes some of Texas' most-gerrymandered districts. Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd's 23rd District and Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Roy’s 21st District are both examples. And it happens in Democratic districts too. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s 35th District, which covers parts of San Antonio and runs up Interstate 35 to include some of South Austin, is considered one of the most severe cases of gerrymandering in the state.
During the panel, Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, pointed out that gerrymandering is an issue for both major political parties. Its practice often silences people of color.
Slicing up the map has become complicated, Li said, because demographics are becoming more diverse. Oftentimes, districts are divided up along racial lines, usually to the detriment of people of color.
“There’s an increasing alignment between race and political party,” Li said.
While lawmakers claim districts are largely redrawn along party lines, Li said the use of demographic data is also changing how districts are mapped out. It doesn’t matter if a district is a perfect rectangle or if it’s broken up into scattered, tiny pieces. It matters more who lives within that map and their viewpoints on issues that will determine how they vote.
“We have better data now,” he said. “Data makes it easier for people to cut the map to their liking. There’s lots of reasons to be concerned.”
While everyday citizens can collect data too, Li and McDonald said it’s up to them to demand change and make sure districts are redrawn without bias. Across the country, the pair said there have been cases of non-politicians who had concerns over district maps, offered solutions and had their suggestions put into effect.
McDonald suggested that voters access publicmapping.org
, which allows users create hypothetical maps. If more citizens see how elections and governmental representation can change in these sample districts, Li believes more might take to the polls.
“The people most informed are the ones most dead-set in their ways and political parties,” Li said.
Better representative democracy may be achieved once voters realize just how troubling gerrymandering is, McDonald said, and how redrawn districts can give them a better voice in determining the direction of the country.
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