This story has been republished with permission from Tennessee Lookout. Read the original story here.
As Tennessee lawmakers prepare to redesign districts, civil rights organizations are working to prevent further gerrymandering ahead of statewide elections.
The Tennessee legislature and city officials are redrawing maps of congressional and state districts based on data from the 2020 U.S. Census, released in August 2021, and are expected to complete their work by April 2022 These officials will decide how members of Congress and the state’s legislative district boundaries will be drawn for the next 10 years, until the next enumeration.
In the meantime, several voting and civil rights organizations are launching statewide campaigns to educate communities about redistribution and how it affects their representation in government.
On Tuesday, Memphis For All, the Tennessee NAACP, the League of Women Voters, CivicTN and other civil rights organizations held a public meeting to discuss the West Tennessee redistribution hearing. Community leaders and residents have expressed frustration that Tennessee lawmakers have complete control over how district maps are decided.
âThe redistribution process should involve as much citizen participation as possible,â said Byron Elam, NAACP member from Jackson-Madison County. âPolitical leaders should not redesign constituencies that protect their own political interests for the benefit of their political parties.
âPeople must have a say and give their opinion on how they will be represented,â he added.
Much has changed in Tennessee since the 2010 census, and in 2012 the maps were redrawn to reflect changes in congressional districts as populations shifted.
Prior to the 2012 redistribution, the 8th Congressional District of West Tennessee consisted of rural western counties, such as Tipton and Lauderdale County, and part of northern Shelby County. The latter “is actually closer to the rural features of western Tennessee than it is to your more suburban and urban features of Shelby County,” said Kendra Lee, policy manager at Equity Alliance.
After the maps were redrawn, Shelby County grew from about 13,000 votes to 100,000 in District 8.
“This was the clearest case of gerrymandering because it doesn’t matter who the people of rural West Tennessee vote for in District 8, they’ll never have real representation because so many votes come from County of. Shelby, âLee said.
âWe literally want to bring him back to what he was before he was gerrymandered. We just want to be able to say that Shelby County will only be responsible for electing one congressman, as we should, âshe added.
But this is just one example of gerrymandering among many, said Lee and other civil rights activists.
From 2010 to 20, Davidson County had the highest population growth in numerical terms. But Trousdale County posted the strongest percentage growth, jumping nearly 50%, despite being a rural county. This is in part because the census enumerated inmates at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, which opened in 2016.
“Almost all of their population growth was related to the construction of a prison and the prison population,” CivicTN executive director Matia Powell said during Tuesday’s redistribution hearing, calling the example county of gerrymandering in prison.
Racial gerrymandering has also been a problem, despite the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.
According to the US Census Bureau, several counties in western Tennessee have large black populations. Haywood County is 50% black; Madison County is 38% black; and Fayette County is 27%. Hardeman County is 42% Black and Lauderdale County is 35% Black.
Among all these counties, there is only one black representative in the State House.
âThere are no black elected officials in the State Senate (in this region) and there are no elected officials in Congress. This is a violation of the voting rights law, because these counties certainly have numbers too high to have 0% of representatives, and it is only this way because they have been forgotten â , Lee said.
And the gerrymandering is a direct result of the public’s inability to address the redistribution, speakers added on Tuesday.
While some states, like North Carolina, allow the public to participate in redistribution committees, the Tennessee legislature does not. For this reason, organizations like CivicTN have given funds to other groups, such as Memphis For All, to launch a statewide campaign to educate and empower local communities to have their own. say in the redistribution process. This includes conducting social media campaigns and public hearings in different sections of the state.
âWe need to come together and be part of this process and make sure that all of our votes are given equal weight. No matter where you’re from or what’s in your wallet, you have to choose your leaders, not the other way around, âsaid Bennett Foster, executive director of the Memphis For All Education Fund, an engagement organization civic non-partisan.
Community leaders and residents will use redistribution audiences to present census data to allow the public to draw their own maps based on population changes. These maps will be presented to the legislators of the redistribution committee.
“We think it’s so essential that we get involved in communities and ask community advocates for their input so lawmakers can see that people across the state are concerned about how they are doing. draw the lines, âsaid Gloria Sweetwater, president of Tennessee. NAACP.
Lawmakers are not required to use the maps drawn during these public hearings, but advocates have said their main goal is to raise awareness in order to provide the public with the information they need to confront lawmakers.
âThe day these maps are released and we see that there are still huge constitutional violations, you can immediately take legal action and get the support you need,â Lee said.