The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits racial and ethnic discrimination in voting in the United States. Such discrimination is not only outlawed in the actual voting process itself— it is also forbidden in all processes that directly or indirectly influence federal or state elections.
Every 10 years, Texas state legislators meet to determine how congressional and state legislative district boundaries should be drawn, a process known as redistricting. When redrawing district lines, the state must comply with federal regulations mandating that each district is of nearly equal population and that districts, in accordance with the Voting Rights Act, do not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity.
Despite the federal laws in place, however, Texas is notorious for finding creative ways to circumvent these barriers or has outright tried to adopt discriminatory maps. Maps appear to be drawn so that each district is inhabited by a predominantly white majority, despite evidence of minority population growth. Legislators are often accused of racial gerrymandering, or drawing lines which attempt to exclude or sideline specific racial groups. By deliberately ensuring that one or more districts do not accurately represent people of color, politicians secure their vote and prevent communities of color from having sufficient representation in any district to elect representatives of their choice.
So if the Voting Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination, and gerrymandering incentivizes redistricting on the basis of disadvantaging racial minorities, then gerrymandering must be illegal, right?
Let’s break gerrymandering down into two distinct categories:
Racial gerrymandering, or redistricting that discriminates on racial grounds, is illegal. This means that if district lines are drawn to intentionally suppress minorities, lawmakers can be penalized.
Partisan gerrymandering, however, is a slightly different political weapon. Legislators draw maps in which district lines are (often blatantly) convoluted so that the resulting districts will likely favor a particular party; meaning, they manipulate district lines without technically diluting the voting power of any single minority group.
The twist: federal judges do not have the authority to prevent partisan gerrymandering. The Supreme Court has severely limited the power of federal judges to prevent this. Unlike racial gerrymandering, which erodes the voting power of racial minorities and thus illegally discriminates against these groups, partisan gerrymandering can only expand a party’s political power. And to limit or redirect the political power of any party is beyond judiciary reach.
WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?
So, the federal courts cannot restrict partisan redistricting, which are supposedly aimed solely at strengthening a party’s influence. Unfortunately, racial gerrymandering is often a byproduct of partisan gerrymandering. When parties draw district lines with political motivations, people of color are often unintentionally adversely affected – particularly in Texas, in which, despite data revealing that minority groups (including African and Hispanic Americans) tend to vote for the Democratic Party and repeated instances of democratic victory by popular vote, congressional seats have often gone to GOP candidates, Moreover, the explosion of the use of and access to data has allowed legislators to more easily analyze this data to racially categorize voters and then predict election results in a district off of racial demographics. A party that will benefit from racially based district lines can then easily accredit its decisions to partisan bias, disguising any racial motivations. A partisan outcome is reached through racially discriminatory actions.
SO, HOW DO WE ELIMINATE RACIAL GERRYMANDERING?
For decades, district lines in Texas have reflected attempts to exclude or sideline communities of color. And as partisan gerrymandering prevails, racial gerrymandering continues to occur simultaneously, minimizing minority voting power. We must pressure our lawmakers to implement a fair and transparent redistricting process, as outlined here. By turning a blind eye to gerrymandered maps, we allow politicians to pick their voters. It’s time to turn this around.
Ishita Shah is a high school student from Allen, Texas. She is an avid writer and public speaker and advocates for youth activism and transparency in politics.