A record number of Black candidates ran for seats in Congress this week, hoping to increase representation in a predominately white legislature. But only a fraction of Black candidates won their races on Nov. 8.
One possible explanation: gerrymandering.
In Florida, incumbent Rep. Al Lawson, a Democrat who served in Congress since 2017, lost his reelection bid to incumbent Republican Rep. Neal Dunn. Lawson’s majority-Black district was divided in the Republican-led redistricting process, forcing him to compete against Dunn in his own district.
State legislatures are in charge of drawing congressional maps, and for years, GOP lawmakers have redrawn them to their advantage. Republicans increase their chances of controlling Congress in part by disproportionately packing Black and brown voters in smaller districts or spreading them across majority white districts. Particularly in the South and Midwest, Republicans have maintained control by skewing maps in their favor.
In February, a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed Alabama to reinstate its 2020 redistricting plan, despite a lower court ruling that the map illegally stacked some Black voters in a single district and dispersed others across predominantly white districts. Since then, courts have deemed congressional maps drawn by GOP lawmakers to be illegally drawn along partisan lines in at least four states — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio.
While ballots are still being counted in some states, it is likely that the Republican Party will take over the House. Control of the Senate is still up for grabs, dependent on the outcome of races in Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia.
Capital B spoke to three political experts about the impact of gerrymandering on Black voters and Black candidates, and the possible pathways to make the election process more equitable.
Capital B: Historically, Republicans have used the redistricting process to increase their advantage of securing seats in the U.S. House, usually at the expense of communities of color. How has this shown up in the outcomes for Black candidates who ran for the House? Did gerrymandering play a role in their losses?
Theodore R. Johnson, senior advisor at New America: I think so. Two folks [Lawson and Dunn] that ran in [Florida], they were both incumbents, and then drawn into the same district. Then, the Republican one won. So, it mattered in a few races. And the biggest thing is that gerrymandering is probably going to be the reason Republicans win the House. This year, they underperformed most of everyone’s expectations — certainly what the polls suggested. For a while it looked like control of the House was going to come down to a couple of seats in New York. The New York redistricting plan … made it easier for Republicans to take two seats there. So, there’s no question that gerrymandering across the state is going to determine who wins the House this year, and it favors Republicans. That’s without question.
As to whether or not gerrymandering in particular hurt Black candidates more? I think you can find a couple of examples, but we also have to remember that a lot of Black folks in Congress are in Congress because they’re in gerrymandered districts. The famous one is in North Carolina. U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, her district is drawn specifically to cluster a whole bunch of Black folks into her district. I think the vast majority of Black members in the House represent districts that are majority Black, or at least plurality Black districts. There are some Black representatives like [Illinois Democratic U.S. Rep.] Lauren Underwood, for example, who is representing a district that’s heavily minority, and it’s a purple district, and she won this cycle. So gerrymandering cuts both ways. I’ve seen on social media folks calling for Democrats to be better at gerrymandering in order to prevent Republicans from being the only party that practices and therefore winning not just more seats in Congress, but also in the state assemblies across the country.
Jamil Scott, assistant professor for Georgetown University’s government department: I think that folks are seeing that some of these key House races were a lot closer than we thought they would be or that we thought they should be. U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes [from Connecticut] as an example. She has been wonderful as an office holder, but it looks like she was on the verge of losing, and that’s largely due to what her districts look like. Her opponent, Republican George Logan, got a lot closer than you would think, given her status as an incumbent. You have to think about how the shifting of districts matters — with someone who won the nomination handily, and then they’re having these problems winning it later on.
Emmitt Riley III, associate professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at DePauw University: Republicans have increased their majorities at the state legislature level over the last 10 years. There’s been a lot of talk about how well [incumbent Republican Gov.] Ron DeSantis did in Florida, and also Republican Sen. Marco Rubio against Val Demings. The thing that nobody is talking about is that the state legislature in Florida actually approved the maps that were written not by the state legislature, but that were written by Ron DeSantis himself.
So when we think of those white majorities, those wide margins that we’re seeing coming out of Florida, gerrymandering is absolutely the central — I think one of the elements that were played up that has influenced the outcome. You see this across the nation. We knew that when the 2020 census data was released that we thought the white population is shrinking, but what offset this in terms of an electoral advantage is that Republicans control so many state legislatures, that they get the final say over what the maps look like. And they often favor them.
How much of an impact does redistricting have on diluting Black political power?
Riley: Gerrymandering, if it is drawn in a certain way, it certainly dilutes African American turnout and African American voters’ strength. The federal law has attempted to say that packing, stacking, and cracking congressional districts are illegal. … Oftentimes, when you construct the geographical bounds of a congressional district, you can almost predict what the outcome is going to be based on a certain demographic. Republicans have gotten more wide with using these strategies, and we have a [Supreme] Court that has largely allowed these practices to remain in place.
Johnson: This is a philosophical question. Is it better to have more Black members of Congress voting on laws? Introducing bills like the Anti-Lynching law, like the Freedom to Vote Act? Or is it better if those Black members of Congress typically come from districts that are majority black, a plurality black? Or is it better to not have majority Black congressional districts and have the Black vote spread around and then make politicians try to appeal to Black voters and have Black voters as swing voters?
The disagreements between whether it’s better to put Black voters in one district and send a Black representative to Congress, whether it’s better to split up Black voters and make them the swing votes in multiple districts to compel the parties to try to attract Black voters by being responsive to their policy demands — right now, my sense of it is that there aren’t many elected Black officials who are willing to have their districts completely redrawn in the interest of district fairness, because they get drawn out of a job. Politicians, no matter what color your skin is, no matter what party you belong to, the one thing you don’t want to happen is to be drawn out of the district that you represent.
Scott: What we do know about Black voters is that they tend to align with the Democratic Party for the most part. When you move districts around, when you dilute voters, it comes smack in the face to Shaw v. Reno, the 1993 Supreme Court case that suggested that there’s power in descriptive representation. It would make sense to challenge the shape of districts, but I think that perhaps the sentiment might be, what is the court going to do, especially when we’re rehearing cases on issues that we felt was settled. … We’ve always known that the court is political, whether there was any doubt in people’s minds that the court is political. If an organization, if an interest group is thinking about bringing a case like this or thinking about voting rights to the Supreme Court, it may not bode as well. It may lead to regression and not to the court being the progressive policymakers that we’ve seen it be in the past.
Capital B: If gerrymandering disproportionately affects Black voters, what’s the solution, especially if the courts don’t get involved? Can the redistricting process be done fairly?
Johnson: I think the right way ahead is the independent commissions where maybe you have three Republicans, three Democrats and three nonpartisan citizens or judges or something like that, get together and redraw the districts in the state and then come to an agreement that makes every district competitive. There’s a body of research out there that tries to determine when a district is no longer competitive. And one of the ones I’m most familiar with is called the efficiency gap. They basically have a formula to calculate when a district is competitive and when it is no longer competitive. And so I think combining independent commissions with something like the efficiency gap would help draw better districts across the country, which ideally would result in more fair elections.
What happens when a commission can’t come to an agreement? Not only do you need a commission, not only do you need statistical formulas to determine how to keep this competitive, but you need a conflict resolution to disputes for these commissions that don’t involve state legislators or politicized courts. And pulling all three of those things together is incredibly difficult to do. But if we want a competitive Congress, if we want the parties to compete for every vote in the district, then to me, that seems like the right way forward.
Scott: Local politics. For so long, I don’t think there’s been enough attention to what’s happening at the local level, and it’s still the case that politics is so nationalized.
If there’s going to be real change in state legislatures, there’s going to have to be a push like what we’re seeing in other states, to … really put a real challenge to some of these candidates who’ve been well-established for a long time in state legislatures, and really considering the possibility of implementing nonpartisan redistricting processes in the future.
Riley: There needs to be an immediate restoration of the Voting Rights Act, restoring section five [requiring states with a history of discriminatory election practices to receive federal approval to change voting laws]. We just can’t stop there. We’ve got to think about legislation that calls for the fair apportionment of populations that are going to be distributed within congressional districts, and where possible, allowing people — in particular people of color — to be placed in districts where they’re getting a fair set of representation.
So the accountability piece has to come from Congress writing legislation, and also holding elected officials accountable that when they have majorities, they are thinking about more fair and equitable ways to construct congressional districts. Whichever party is empowered to draw the maps typically draw maps that are more favorable to their political interests. What we need to look at is states that have these independent commissions that will engage in drawing maps, but also think the federal law needs to be clear about what constitutes a fair and equitable district where people are entitled to fair representation.