How the Suburbs Have Changed Gerrymandering

Maps that disadvantage people of color are not unique to Republican states. Groups that promote better racial representation in politics have objected, including with lawsuits, to districts drawn by Democrats in Illinois, and Democrats are also expected to gerrymander aggressively in New York. But most of the gerrymandering nationally is Republican, both because Republicans control the drawing of far more districts than Democrats do and because demographics are shifting in Democrats’ favor.

In lawsuits, advocacy groups are still focusing largely on cities, where they have the strongest cases under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It requires mapmakers to draw opportunity districts — where a racial minority group is a majority of the voting-age population — under certain conditions when demographics make it possible.

In the Texas suburbs, Latino communities are growing but are generally not large enough to create congressional opportunity districts, said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the Latino civil rights organization MALDEF, which is suing Texas officials for failing to draw Latino-majority districts in urban areas of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, as well as in South Texas.

The targets in the suburbs, she said, are more often multiracial communities where no single racial group could form a majority in a congressional district, but multiple racial groups with aligned interests and political preferences could.

But state legislative districts can be a different story.

Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel of MALDEF, cited a state Senate seat held by a white Democrat in Illinois, where Democrats are aggressively gerrymandering. That district — currently the 12th, but renumbered as the 11th on the new map — is in the western suburbs of Chicago and gained a Latino majority over the past decade, and legislators redrew it in a way that eliminated the majority, a move MALDEF is challenging.

But more often than not, gerrymanders in 2021 look like Texas’ or North Carolina’s: densely packed Democratic districts within cities and, outside the city limits, convoluted lines radiating into the countryside, welding racially diversifying suburbs to whiter and more conservative rural America.

“You’re really starting to see the emergence of a new multiracial America, the politics of the future,” Li, of the Brennan Center for Justice, said. “And instead of deciding to compete for that future, Republicans have decided to kick the can down the road and try to gerrymander their way out of their problem.”

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