Recently, I attended a hearing held by the Massachusetts legislature’s Special Joint Committee on Redistricting where the newly drawn legislative districts were unveiled. Massachusetts, the birthplace of gerrymandering, has a sensitive history with the redistricting process. Over the past decades, the Legislature has made a conscious effort to diversify its district maps. This year representatives prided themselves upon the creation of 33 majority-minority opportunity districts, a 13 district increase from previous years.
Majority-minority districts are drawn to prevent the voting strength of minorities from being diluted by largely white populations. Popularized in the early 1990s, these districts came about in response to discrimination claims under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or membership in a minority group. The populations of these districts typically have a non-Hispanic, white population of less than 50 percent. For decades, these districts have increased minority turnout and the racial diversity of elected representatives.
Many believe that this style of racially driven redistricting is necessary to counterbalance cracking, where district lines are drawn to prevent any political majorities from forming. But what happens when the creation of majority-minority districts leads to packing, limiting minority influence to only a few districts?
For a predominantly white state like Massachusetts, where minority populations are typically geographically concentrated, these districts truly elevate minority representation. The percentage of minority voters is too small to be successfully distributed across multiple districts and requires higher concentrations to achieve representation. But, can the same be said for states that have larger and more geographically diverse minority populations?
Majority-minority districts rely heavily on the foundation of the one person one vote standard, which was established by the Supreme Court Baker V. Carr decision in 1962. The Supreme Court ruled congressional district populations within the same state must be equal. This decision inadvertently limited the political influence of majority-minority districts: by increasing minority populations in one district, you consequently decrease it in others.
Research has shown that while majority-minority districts increase minority representation, they also decrease Democratic representation. As a result, Republican influence is amplified, particularly in districts that contained a high percentage of African American voters. Given that minority group interests typically align with Democratic platforms, these districts can dilute overall minority political influence and work against its intended purpose. Minorities cannot achieve substantive change because they lack voting power amongst the larger political majority. While they may have success at the district level, that success is nullified by a lack of widescale representation. In order to fairly represent minority interests, the percentage of racial populations within majority-minority districts must decrease and be distributed across a larger number of districts.
Previously, it was believed that districts needed upwards of 50 percent representation among individual racial groups to elect minority favored candidates. Voting rights advocates believe that that number may be outdated, given current population demographics and voting behaviors. Out of the 53 members of the House Congressional Black Caucus, only 18 came from a district that had a black population of over 50 percent, suggesting that that magic number may need updating. Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard Law School Professor, suggests that the Black population should be below 50 percent across the country and puts the current success rates in the 40 to 30 percent range.
Rather than having one 60 percent minority district—which would guarantee one minority elected representative, the same effect can be achieved by having two 30 percent minority districts. This comes as a result of changes to voting patterns between whites and minorities, which are more cohesive than in years past. Now, whites are now more accepting and willing to vote for minority candidates. Minorities do not need to be hyper-concentrated into select districts to successfully elect candidates of their choice.
Unpacking hyper-minority districts and distributing its populations across a larger number of districts can be achieved, particularly given that nonwhite voters now account for more than three-quarters of the electorate growth. As the population becomes increasingly diverse, the need to pack minorities into a few districts has decreased.
With the 2022 redistricting cycle underway, we must look at majority-minority districts with a critical eye. These districts can act as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, appearing to offer increased racial diversity while actually diluting minority interests. Republican-held legislatures control 14 more state redistricting processes than Democrats, giving them a clear structural advantage in the House of Representatives over the next decade. Given the research that shows highly concentrated minority districts amplify Republican influence, combined with the recent social justice movements surrounding racial equity, individuals need to be critical of Republican-drawn majority-minority districts. What appears as a move for racial equity may just be a repackaging of old gerrymandering techniques.