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Monday, October 25, 2021

Addition Without Representation

On paper, newly released census numbers should result in increased minority representation and a Democratic advantage in Congress. But that’s not how it’s shaping

FILE  - In this Jan. 26, 2020 file photo, people cheer as democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa.  On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, when the nation's political microscope turns to inspect the small state's DNA, people start to complain about this quirk of American presidential politics. Why Iowa? It doesn't look like America, they note. It certainly doesn't look like the Democratic Party, in terms of racial diversity. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The U.S. census numbers released Thursday show an American population marching steadily toward majority-minority status.(John Locher/AP)

When the United States was young, the political power was held by white men, and it was very much by design. Only white, male landowners could vote, and that was reflected in the literal face of Congress. Minority representation was sparse – Congress in 1868 refused to seat the first Black person elected to the House – and it’s been a long, hard climb for people of color to gain representation in elected office.

The U.S. census numbers released Thursday show a very different America, one that is marching steadily toward majority-minority status. Population trends show an increase in the percentage of Blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including in states that historically have been overwhelmingly white, while the white population decreased by nearly 9%.Recommended VideosPowered by AnyClipNext N.Y. Governor Vows to Move Past Scandals 1.1K

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Those identifying as two or more races experienced the largest growth since 2010, increasing from 9 million people to 34 million – a 276% increase that accounted for most of the overall changes in each racial category. Meanwhile, those identifying as “some other race” increased by 129%, surpassing those identifying as Black as the second-largest race.[ 

READ Politics Rage at the Intersection of Immigration and Coronavirus Policy ]

The Hispanic population, which includes people of any race, grew 23% compared to the population that was not of Hispanic origin, which grew just 4%.

On paper, the census numbers should result in increased minority representation in Congress. Politically, the population trends also should benefit Democrats, who enjoy lopsided support among Blacks, and majority support among Latinos and Asian Americans. It’s an emerging America that Democrats had hoped would give them a near-permanent majority, unless and until the Republican Party made better inroads among minority group voters.

“Now, especially given this diverse society, it becomes more and more important to find ways to reflect that diversity” is political representation, says Sam Wang, director of the Electoral Innovation Lab and Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

But that’s not how it’s shaping up for Democrats – who are widely expected to lose control of the House next year despite the increased population numbers among voters in their base. Nor are minority communities themselves guaranteed higher representation in public office.

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Gerrymandering – the drawing of legislative and congressional district lines to benefit one political party – is expected to favor Republicans after this year’s decennial redistricting in the states. Not only do Republicans have more power in the states than Democrats, but states that are gaining congressional seats (such as Texas, Florida and North Carolina) are run by Republicans, giving the GOP an extra opportunity to add another seat to their ranks.

“Partisan gerrymandering will come at the expense of communities of color, especially in the South,” says Michael Li, senior counsel with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “In large parts of the country, a single party has control of the process, which we know is almost guaranteed to cause shenanigans.”

The gerrymandering threat in general isn’t as high as it was in 2010, elections experts note. In the past decade, many states have instituted reforms empowering independent commissions or other entities to draw district lines instead of having the state legislature and governor complete the task.

But Republicans still have an enormous advantage, notes political analyst Charlie Cook, author of the highly regarded Cook Political Report. The GOP will have the power to draw lines for 187 congressional seats, while Democrats will control line-drawing in just 75 congressional districts. The rest will be drawn by independent commissions or by states with divided government. A handful of states have just one congressional seat, meaning no lines need to be drawn.

“(Republicans) can either embrace the multicultural coalition of America or they can try to hang onto the past.”

Republicans need only wrest five seats to take control of the House. Reapportionment, which assigns the total number of congressional seats to each state, “alone is probably going to cost the Democrats about three House seats,” Cook told reporters in a recent webinar. “And then you look at redistricting,” the drawing of lines within each state, and the picture is even rosier for Republicans, he said.

“Republicans will not have quite as strong a hold on the process as they did 10 years ago, but they will still have a big advantage,” he said.

In states that are losing seats – such as New York and Illinois – Democrats control the governments and the redistricting process. But that just means that they can squeeze out a seat currently held by a Republican. It does not give them a chance to increase their power, experts note.

Meanwhile, GOP-run states are enacting strict voter rules critics say will result in reduced turnout among minority voters – the very people who are, on paper, widening their American footprint. That, too, may result in minority populations being denied the heightened political power that would naturally come from their increased numbers.

Voting rights experts and demographers point to Texas as Exhibit A in the two trends of gerrymandering and voter suppression. Long a deep red state, Texas has been moving toward battleground status, in large part because of in-migration from other, more liberal states, and an increase in minority populations.

Texas was one of the highest scoring states in the census diversity index. The difference in size between the white non-Hispanic population, at 39.7%, and the Hispanic population, at 39.3%, shrank to 0.4 percentage points, happening alongside major population growth.

The 10 largest metro areas in the U.S. all grew between 2010 and 2020, led by Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington and Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, which each grew by approximately 20%.

Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston were also two of the nation’s three metro areas to gain at least 1.2 million people over the decade.

But Democrats shouldn’t count on GOP-run Texas to help them pick up one of the two congressional seats Texas will get next year. Republicans now occupy 23 of the state’s 36 House seats. Congressional lines are drawn by the Republican-controlled state legislatures, subject to a veto by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

If the legislature can’t agree on district lines? The process goes to a commission. All of its members are Republicans.[ 

MORE: Can Republicans Flip the House in 2022? ]

Adding to Democrats’ and minority voters’ challenges, Texas is trying to pass strict voter rules that critics say will suppress voting in minority and Democrat-friendly areas. Democratic state legislators are seeking to hold up the process by refusing to provide a quorum on the floor, but Republicans are determined to force an eventual vote.

“Texas is a problem child. Texas is a place where a lot of mischief can happen,” says Wang, who works with RepresentUS, a group that fights gerrymandering by both parties.

Advocates say the only effective path to protect minority voters before the 2022 elections is through federal legislation. Voters in nine states – Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Florida and Louisiana – would be protected by “pre-clearance” protections if Congress were to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, Valencia Richardson, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, told reporters in a webinar this week.

Pre-clearance means certain states would have to prove the new laws did not discriminate against minority voters. In a landmark 2013 decision, Shelby County v Holder, the Supreme Court removed the preclearance requirements for a slate of states and localities, saying the requirement was based on old data that no longer applied. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore preclearance requirements.

“This new data shows that our country is more diverse than ever, but from history we know that when we make progress, we inevitably face backlash,” said Martin Luther King III, chairman of the Drum Major Institute. “Some elected officials are afraid that if they embrace a more diverse America, they will lose their power.”

“Those same people are willing to weaponize the new Census data to gerrymander the vote and rig the system against Black and Brown Americans,” he said. “We need federal legislation to stop it because, in a democracy, voters choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

But if Congress does not act before states draw their new lines, it’s likely Republicans will benefit from a GOP-friendly framework for the next decade, experts say.

“They discovered they can kick the can down the road with voter suppression and gerrymandering,” Li says. “They can either embrace the multicultural coalition of America or they can try to hang onto the past, as they have chosen to do in the past.”

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