'A state by state fight': Legal battles over redistricting maps continue into the new year

Mississippi state Rep. Dan Eubanks
Rep. Dan Eubanks, a Republican in the Mississippi state House of Representatives, examines a copy of the House redistricting map. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Every 10 years, political lines are redrawn across the country based on the U.S Census Bureau data, typically by state lawmakers, leading to a host of legal battles over the new maps.

The 2020 census data was released in 2021 after a months-long delay due to the pandemic. By the end of 2022, every state had a new congressional map, but legal challenges to the redrawn districts, some of which allege discrimination against people of color, have continued into the new year.

“It’s a state by state fight,” Dan Vicuna, the national redistricting manager of Common Cause, a voting rights organization, told Yahoo News. “In this country, there's a long history of using the redistricting process to discriminate against people of color or to discriminate against voters of one party.”

The latest lawsuit is in Mississippi, where the Mississippi NAACP, five Black residents and several voting rights advocates claim that the new map violates the Voting Rights Act and weakens the voting power of Black Mississippians.

“Mississippi is about 38% Black by population, which is the largest percentage of any state. But the legislative districts that were drawn in these maps that were passed earlier this year don’t reflect that,” Ari Savitzky, the senior staff attorney of ACLU voting rights project, told Yahoo News.

Mississippi state Sens. Rod Hickman, D-Macon, left, Michael McLendon, R-Hernando, second from left, Albert Butler, D-Port Gibson, and David Jordan, D-Greenwood
State senators review an alternate Senate redistricting map during a debate at the Mississippi state Capitol in Jackson, March 29. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

The lawsuit includes several instances in which maps were drawn in a way that the plaintiffs argue will ultimately eliminate the possibility for Black voters to elect the candidates of their choice.

“Mississippi’s newest maps are a continuation of the state’s long history of disenfranchising Black voters,” Janette McCarthy Wallace, general counsel for the NAACP, said in a press release.

But Senate President Pro Tempore Dean Kirby, who led the state Senate redistricting effort, told the Associated Press that the Black lawmakers he spoke with about the new congressional map in Mississippi said they were very pleased with it.

“I can’t imagine a more fair redistricting resolution than the one that we passed,” Kirby told the AP.

Justin Levitt, a professor of law at Loyola Marymount University and founder of All About Redistricting, a website that provides information on the redistricting process, says racial gerrymandering is a frequent practice in legislatures nationwide.

“Drawing lines in a way that unduly burdened racial minorities — that is an unfortunately familiar claim, not just in Mississippi, but in many parts of the country, and particularly in the South,” Levitt told Yahoo News.

Similarly, in Alabama, the lower federal courts found that the state's congressional map likely violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Black voters. The initial map was blocked but in February the Supreme Court temporarily approved the Republican-backed map.

Southern states like Georgia and Louisiana are also facing similar challenges as courts ruled that Black voters were disenfranchised in both states.

Evan Milligan, center
Evan Milligan, center, plaintiff in Merrill v. Milligan, an Alabama redistricting case that could have far-reaching effects on minority voting power across the United States, speaks with members of the press following oral arguments at the Supreme Court. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

In Georgia, a closely watched state during the 2022 midterms, there are multiple federal lawsuits challenging the state's new congressional map, but the courts have not ordered new maps. And in Louisiana, a federal judge requested a new map but the Supreme Court blocked the order.

According to voting rights advocates, a wave of racial gerrymandering is impacting maps across the country. The 2020 U.S Census Bureau reported that the overall racial diversity of the United States increased since 2010, and the Black population was the most prevalent in parts of the South.

“But just because communities of color may drive population growth, that doesn't mean they have a seat at the table,” Dan Vicuna, the national redistricting manager of Common Cause, a national organization fighting for fair redistricting, told Yahoo News.

“Unfortunately, in this country, there's a long history of elected officials in power using that power to either pack Black, Latino, Native American Asian voters into as few districts as possible or alternatively cracking those communities to spread voters throughout a bunch of different districts, so they have no power in any one district.”

Some states are preparing for trials. In Florida, the state will have a trial in September after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a congressional redistricting plan that links Tallahassee and Jacksonville, two districts that have a large population of Black voters.

Rep. Angie Nixon of Florida
Florida state Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, at a debate over redistricting. (Phil Sears/AP)

“We're challenging maps in Florida as a violation of their state constitutions’ prohibition against racial and partisan gerrymandering,” Vicuna said.

States like Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, New York and Maryland are also facing legal battles.

“A lot of the lawsuits were filed in 2021 or early 2022. Some of them are over for now but still lingering, some of them were just brought, some of the litigation will last the entire decade,” Levitt said.

In the meantime some states are changing their redistricting process to remove politicians from drawing the lines, because advocates say it is a conflict of interest.

“In blue states and red states and purple states, voter initiatives have often taken the pen out of the hands of the incumbent politicians. There are different models for who you give the pen to,” Levitt said.

Voting rights advocates say they will continue to fight for fair lines because the allocation of power and access to resources at every level of government depends on fair redistricting.

“Black or white, Republican or Democrat, we all demand districts to comply with federal law that gives everyone a fair shot at representation,” Savitzky said.