The U.S. Supreme Court is currently settling a case that will determine whether South Carolina Republicans designed a congressional map that benefits their party at the expense of Black voters.
But South Carolina isn’t the only state with eyebrow-raising district boundaries.
A new report card from the Coalition Hub for Advancing Redistricting and Grassroots Engagement shows that states across the country continue to target voters of color and leave them out of a key once-in-a-decade process that decides who might stick up for them on issues ranging from climate change to health care access to criminal justice reform.
More than that, the study, which is the result of hundreds of interviews, offers a blueprint for improving redistricting in the future, illuminating how grassroots work and independent redistricting commissions can pave the way for fair maps.
The report card evaluates map-drawing efforts across all 50 states using factors such as empowerment of communities of color, opportunities for public input, and transparency of the process, and encourages people to check out how their state performed.
Only California and Massachusetts earned an A grade. Alabama, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin received an F because of their egregious racial and partisan gerrymandering, or sorting voters based on race and partisanship. (South Carolina got a D+.)
Here’s a closer look at some of the findings.
The best and the worst
California and Massachusetts received the highest grade, an A-, though for somewhat different reasons.
California stood out in part because it had significant public engagement: More than 30,000 written comments and almost 4,000 verbal comments were submitted. These numbers were a big improvement over previous redistricting cycles, per the study.
It added that final state-level maps tend to “respect and reflect communities of interest” — or groups of people who often share legislative concerns — including Latino communities in the Central Valley, Inland Empire, San Fernando Valley, and Orange County.
Massachusetts was credited with increasing majority-minority districts in the House from 20 to 33, doubling majority-minority districts in the Senate, and making legislative hearings widely accessible to the public.
Meanwhile, Alabama, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin got an F due to their map drawing that assigns voters to districts based on race and party affiliation.
Alabama Republicans tried to ignore the Supreme Court’s June directive to create a second majority-Black congressional district. A federal court this month approved a new map that empowers Black voters in two districts.
Ohio has been involved in a long-running legal dispute over congressional and state legislative maps designed after the 2020 census that favor Republicans and rob Black voters of their political power. The state’s high court has struck down these maps several times.
One of the most surprising takeaways from the report card is that, as intractable as redistricting issues might seem when elected officials are in charge of drawing district lines, organizing can lead to progress, according to study co-author Dan Vicuña, the director of redistricting and representation at Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
“Even when the members of one party are in control, they can be shamed or pushed into doing the right thing on redistricting,” he explained. “We generally found that under systems that were designed to make the process less partisan — that took that power away from elected officials — communities have a much better chance of achieving fair representation. But even under tough circumstances, organizers can win.”
Ashley Shelton, the founder and president of the New Orleans-based nonprofit Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, echoed some of these sentiments, and underscored the importance of public pressure.
She told Capital B that she was thrilled when she learned in June that the Supreme Court had cleared a path for the creation of a second majority-Black congressional district in Louisiana, which received a D-, by returning a case to the lower courts to figure out before the 2024 elections.
Though the state is 33% Black, just one of its six districts is majority Black.
“It was the people’s day,” she said. “So much of everything leading up to that point had been about elected and appointed leaders. What was beautiful about that day was that it was about the people. We had historic, unprecedented participation throughout the redistricting process. Folks were begging for — demanding — a fair map. It was great to go back to them and say, ‘Your voice matters.’”
During the most recent redistricting cycle, organizations including Shelton’s sent nearly 200 people to the state Capitol to advocate for a fair map.
Despite the high court’s landmark ruling in the Alabama case over the summer, Louisiana Republicans are resisting efforts to add another majority-Black district and are seemingly trying to delay legal proceedings so that no new maps appear before 2024. In court filings, attorneys for the Republicans have signaled that they’re hoping to use the Supreme Court’s June affirmative action decision to argue that considering race in redistricting is unconstitutional.
Yet even in the face of this sobering political landscape, Shelton is optimistic that Louisiana will adopt a new map and contribute to a shift in the balance of power in Congress, as voting rights groups in a number of states mount legal challenges that could flip House seats and help Democrats.
“I’m as angry as anyone else about everything that’s happening right now. But I also see opportunity here — opportunity for us to walk in our agency as voters and choose leaders who are actually going to do the work of the people,” she said.
A movement toward involving the community
The report card also notes that independent redistricting commissions — where people who aren’t politicians draw maps — make a difference, because they’re far more likely to incorporate public feedback into the process.
Vicuña said that one state he and his colleagues are keeping an eye on is Ohio, where they’re collecting signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2024 that would create an independent redistricting commission and make determining district boundaries less partisan and more transparent.
“There’s been a growing movement toward reforms that open up redistricting to real community input,” he told Capital B.
Looking ahead, study co-author Marijke Kylstra, the redistricting coordinator at Fair Count, a voting rights organization that was founded in 2019 by Stacey Abrams, said that one of the main things she hopes that people learn from the report card is the importance of local map-drawing efforts.
“Basically everyone I talked with experienced and rated their state process very poorly: It’s controlled by a single party, exclusionary, and non-transparent,” she explained. “What advocates, especially advocates in the South, said was that they’re most likely to move the needle for Black communities locally — organizing at this level can result in school board wins and city council wins that can make a huge difference in people’s lives. And folks wish that more people paid attention to these local fights.”
Redistricting might not be the most eye-grabbing issue — after all, it’s fundamentally about numbers, about counting — but it’s far too consequential to ignore.
“When we see that there’s gerrymandering, when we see that there’s splitting of Black communities and other communities of color,” Kylstra said, “what that means is the loss of political power and representation and access to resources for the next decade.”