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Every 10 years, following a census, every state legislature in the nation must redraw voting district lines to reflect shifts in population. “The underlying principle is one person, one vote, so every district must be the exact same size,” explains David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. The number of districts in each state also changes. States such as California are entitled to more districts–and more congressional representatives–than small states like Rhode Island because they have much larger populations.
It all sounds pretty harmless, but redistricting is an extremely important political process. The Supreme Court mandated that districts be the same size, but how that is achieved is an entirely different matter. “It can be done so one party is given an advantage over the other, based on which one controls the state legislature and the governor’s office,” says Bositis.
To safeguard against unfair mapping, which may leave black lawmakers competing against one another, the NAACP has expanded its redistricting project. “One purpose is to arm our units with what we hope will be benchmark plans against which government or politically proposed maps will be measured,” says the NAACP’s general counsel, Dennis C. Hayes.
In addition to increased legal and technical support, the organization has hired a topographer and secured computer software used to create maps. “We won’t ask you to draw plans that are fair. we’re going to show you that. they can be drawn fairly and present you with a plan that will yield equitable representation for everybody,” says Hayes. “Half the battle is getting your plan on the table and taken seriously. But when we feel a jurisdiction is unfairly and unlawfully adopting plans that don’t respect minority voting strength, we will consider litigation.”
“If you have the capacity to take the demographic information that the census produces and actually draw districts,” adds U.S. Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), “you have more power in the process and the ability to evaluate what other people are proposing [intelligently].”
Helen Giddings, a Texas state representative, has been down this road.
This past summer, a Texas House committee came up with a plan that protected incumbents and added one Republican and one Democratic seat. The Senate’s plan, however, increased Republican seats and split minority-voting populations in her ward. Giddings, for example, would have had to run against another black incumbent. “It was very retrogressive,” she says, employing a term used to describe the deterioration of minority-voter influence. “There were a number of pairings that would result in the loss of black representation and seniority.”
Giddings, who sits on her state’s appropriations committee, put up a fight, bringing in a bipartisan coalition of black and white business people to testify before a redistricting board created because the state’s House and Senate could not agree on a plan. “Was some improvement made? Yes,” says Giddings.