Black Voters Say New Congressional Maps Water Down Their Influence : The NPR Politics Podcast November's midterms will be the first general election to use the new set of congressional maps drawn after the 2020 census. In Florida and Tennessee, some Black voters have voiced concerns that the new maps make it harder to elect someone who will advocate for their interests.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, political reporter Ashley Lopez and WPLN reporter Blaise Gainey.

Learn more about upcoming live shows of The NPR Politics Podcast at nprpresents.org.

Support the show and unlock sponsor-free listening with a subscription to The NPR Politics Podcast Plus. Learn more at plus.npr.org/politics

Connect:
Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org
Join the NPR Politics Podcast Facebook Group.
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Newsletter.

Black Voters Say New Congressional Maps Water Down Their Influence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1118275537/1118284281" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JULIUS: Hi. This is Julius (ph) in Miami, Fla., visiting my grandparents before I fly back to Amherst, Mass. for college. And it's my grandma's birthday. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

1:40 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, August 18.

JULIUS: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. Happy birthday, Grandma. And here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: Happy birthday to your grandma.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I hope grandma listens.

KHALID: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And today on the show, we're going to talk about redistricting and, specifically, what it means for Black voters. The November midterms will be the first time a new set of maps will be used this decade. And of course, there are lots of interesting state maps to look at across the country, but let's begin with Florida because, Ashley, you just got back from a trip there to look into this very issue. And I want to hear why you decided to actually go to Florida for this story.

LOPEZ: So I went to Jacksonville, which is in North Florida, to talk to folks there about a congressional seat that they had lost there during redistricting which had been, historically, one of the few opportunity districts for Black voters in the state. It's a seat that's been held by Al Lawson for some years. And actually, during redistricting this go around, Florida lost half of the Black districts it had. It went from four to two seats where Black voters had a say in who got sent to Congress, which I thought was pretty notable.

KHALID: Ashley, can you clarify what an opportunity district is?

LOPEZ: Yeah. So it is a district that is drawn to include a significant amount of Black voters or, you know, if we're talking about any sort of racial minority, where they have an opportunity to elect someone from their community to represent them in Congress.

KHALID: Can you tell us what these new maps look like and how we got them?

LOPEZ: So these maps have, like, a pretty significant advantage for Republicans. And what happened here is that, you know, long story short, the legislature had come up through the regular process with a congressional map that both sides were relatively OK with. But Governor Ron DeSantis thought that map was unconstitutional. He actually vetoed the legislature's congressional map and submitted his own.

KHALID: Even though the legislature is Republican dominated? OK.

LOPEZ: Right, exactly. I mean, there are some laws in the Constitution about maps having to be fair. So, you know, lawmakers have to make sure, you know, they go through the process of like, you know, honoring those laws. I mean, it's a very long - like most redistricting stories, it's a long story that's really complicated. But, you know, DeSantis' office said that he did this because he thought that Jacksonville seat in particular violated the equal protection clause because it took race into account when it was drawn. A trial court disagreed with DeSantis earlier this year, but a pretty conservative appellate court swooped in and reinstated DeSantis' map until this, like, long legal battle's over with, which means that map is here to stay, at least for now, but definitely for upcoming elections.

KHALID: Domenico, I'm somewhat confused by that justification that we heard Ashley explain, that the governor gave of Florida because I understand the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, but my understanding was that it is, I thought, supposed to be illegal to redraw maps to reduce the influence of Black voters.

MONTANARO: And you're right, Asma. I mean, the Voting Rights Act has been weakened by the Supreme Court and has made it harder, frankly, for people to challenge whether or not a district has been racially gerrymandered or if it needs to be redrawn for more fairness. You know, but the fact is, if it's not done explicitly to be racial gerrymandering, then it can be allowed based on political gerrymandering. The court has said that political gerrymandering is fine. And for example, one voting group, like Black voters, who vote about 85% or more...

KHALID: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...With one party, with Democrats, then it makes it a lot easier to be able to cordon off Black voters into one specific district. And frankly, a lot of people around the country have become easier to cordon off into smaller districts, which affect Democrats more because people are living closer and closer with people who believe what they believe ideologically. And that's why it becomes easier to do. Now, if there is a paper trail or an email chain of people saying that they're doing this because of racial reasons, then that would probably be evidence for something that would be illegal. But it's a lot easier to say we're going to do this based on politics.

KHALID: Ashley, you said that the governor said that it violated the equal protection clause based on race, though, right?

LOPEZ: Yeah, because it was drawn to give Black voters more power than white voters. So he's kind of, like, using the equal protection clause as, like, a way to protect white voters, which was - we all know was, like, not the point of that clause in the 14th Amendment.

MONTANARO: Right. And the fact is, this also gives Republicans an advantage, right? I mean, what are we talking...

LOPEZ: Right.

MONTANARO: ...About, potentially two extra seats in Congress for Republicans here or advantaging Republicans? Which, by the way, Democrats only have a five-seat majority in the House currently. And any kind of marginal difference is going to make a huge difference, potentially, this fall for who controls Congress because two seats is almost half of what...

KHALID: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Republicans would need to take over the House.

KHALID: So Ashley, how are people that you spoke with there in the Jacksonville area reacting to these new congressional maps?

LOPEZ: So I spoke to mostly Black activists in Jacksonville in particular, and they're really angry about all this. For one, it strips a significant amount of voting power away from Black voters in that city. Michael Sampson, a local activist in Jacksonville, told me he thinks this was, like, deliberately targeted at those Black voters.

MICHAEL SAMPSON: He's essentially diluted the vote to include more white suburban areas. And those areas, Clay and Nassau County, have more of a definite answer on who gets elected. So I think long term, it's going to have a very, very devastating impact on policy happening in Congress, but as well as, you know, what recourse do African Americans in this city have in D.C. if we don't have a representative who will actually represent our communities?

LOPEZ: So Sampson and some other folks I talked to say they think this is aimed at making it harder to organize these voters and other racial minorities going into some big elections this year.

KHALID: Ashley, do people have concerns that this could also curb enthusiasm if people feel like, ultimately, their vote may not matter as much?

LOPEZ: You know, this is the kind of - one of those parts of, like, political science that's always hard to suss out. It's, like, really hard to say definitively what the impact of something like one map would be on how voters behave. But Andrea Benjamin, at the University of Oklahoma, told me that there is research that shows that this kind of thing has a history of affecting turnout, specifically among Black voters.

ANDREA BENJAMIN: Sometimes, redistricting can sort of reduce Black political participation if they're drawn into districts with non-Black incumbents, whereas when they're redrawn into Black-represented districts, they are more likely to participate.

LOPEZ: And one of the reasons that is, is because, she says, you know, Black candidates do a better job of reaching out and organizing voters in the communities they come from. If you have, let's say, like, a white candidate in that - you know, running for office, it is harder for that candidate on average to do an effective job of organizing voters in that area, which means it's likely to affect who goes to the polls.

KHALID: You know, Domenico, we're talking about a couple of seats only here in the state of Florida. But even limited impact could have, ultimately, quite significant implications in Congress.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, we're talking about tiny, tiny majorities here that Democrats and Republicans are looking at, potentially, in the future as the number of competitive swing districts have declined based on the 2020 census. And we're seeing only about 30 districts now nationally that are decided within about five points of each other that lean one direction or another toward Democrats or Republicans, which makes a very, very narrow playing field and far fewer moderate candidates, for example, overall.

KHALID: All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break. Ashley, thanks so much for coming on the show.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thank you.

KHALID: And when we get back, we are going to head to Tennessee to look at how redistricting is affecting voters there.

And we're back. And we are joined now by Blaise Gainey of WPLN in Nashville, a first-time guest, actually, to our podcast. So welcome. Thanks for coming on.

BLAISE GAINEY, BYLINE: No, thank you for welcoming me.

KHALID: So, Blaise, the district lines there in Nashville also went through some fairly drastic changes. And I want you to help us understand what the congressional maps look like now.

GAINEY: So essentially, in Nashville, it was historically a Democratic district. District 5 encompassed all of Nashville and essentially included very small cities on the outskirts that were still - essentially still part of the metro feel. Now, all of Nashville is separated into three different districts. There's one road in Nashville in particular, Thompson Lane, where if you walk down the road less than a mile, you'll crossover into all three districts. And there's a spot you can stand on, a highway, and see into all three districts.

KHALID: So you're saying that one city has been chopped up into three districts, and, presumably, that is being done to give Republicans an electoral advantage.

GAINEY: Yeah. So the three districts, they start in essentially Nashville, Davidson County, and then they spread out east and west and south, and they gather more rural in Republican-leaning counties.

MONTANARO: You know, and as we've seen, a lot of cities start to be places where people are moving to, congregating to. But with so many Republicans controlling state legislatures across the country, we're seeing them take on this practice of what's known as cracking. There are two ways, essentially, that state legislatures redistrict, and that's packing and cracking. You pack in voters into a district so you can give, you know, a smaller amount of power overall to people in the other political party, or you crack that district so that you can make it more competitive so that you have more of a chance to win over parts of Nashville, for example, by diluting it with areas that are in the suburbs, more heavily older or white or rural places to be able to kind of build up your power.

Now, this is something that not just Republicans do. They get a lot of attention for it because they control a lot of the state legislatures, but Democrats do it as well. I mean, Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, for example, looks like an inkblot test, and it's routinely thought of as probably the most gerrymandered district in the country. The problem for Democrats, though, is that they're also more in favor of independent commissions, which creates fairer districts, but that means that they're - in the places where they do have control, they're winding up with fewer districts to counterbalance what Republicans are doing in states that they control.

KHALID: And Blaise, we've been talking about how redistricting affects Black voters. There in Nashville, how do these new maps divide the Black population?

GAINEY: Davidson County essentially was around 25% Black. And now, these three districts split. The highest amongst them has about 18% Black voters, which is very overwhelmingly overshadowed by the amount of white voters, which is around 70%. And that's in District 7.

MONTANARO: You know, this is really about raw political power. And Republicans have gotten pretty darn good at being able to win over these state legislative seats and gaining full control of a lot of these state legislatures. Currently, you have - Republicans control the drawing of about 187 districts nationally. Democrats control about 75 districts nationally.

KHALID: Got it. And Blaise, I've got to imagine that voters there in Nashville are pretty frustrated and upset with the situation; that suddenly, the district that they've had, a longtime Democratic district, doesn't exist anymore.

GAINEY: Yeah. I mean, voters are very upset about it. I mean, while the maps were being made, they continued to say, even in rural counties, that we want our areas stuck together. We want to keep our communities together, and they don't want to see cities divided. And that's essentially exactly what they did here, is split Nashville up into three different districts. And Odessa Kelly - she's running in the 7th Congressional District. She's an openly gay Black woman, a progressive. And whoever wins those three seats - or are likely to win those three seats - will be Republicans and will probably not be going for or fighting for the exact things that she wants.

ODESSA KELLY: We want to see Section 2 and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act restored. Now, are any of those three going to fight for that, you know? We want to see the George Floyd Policing Act pass. Are any of those three going to fight for that?

KHALID: And what do the Republicans who drew the maps say about these criticisms?

GAINEY: Well, essentially, they say, you know, that people are missing the point, that now they will have three congressmen in Washington fighting for them. But I think, as you heard in the bite earlier, Kelly does not believe that they'll exactly be fighting for them, but rather against them.

KHALID: So it sounds like some of the voters you talked to feel like, in fact, they will have not a single member of Congress really fighting for them.

GAINEY: Yeah. The only Democrat likely to be in Congress from Tennessee is over in Memphis, which is the only majority minority district in the state. So Republicans sort of couldn't touch that one because it would have been very clear and illegal gerrymandering, whereas we talked about in the show earlier, political gerrymandering isn't really an issue. So what happened here in Davidson could be seen as racial gerrymandering, but when it's only 25%, it's not a minority majority district. Therefore, it doesn't fall under the stipulations of the majority minorities.

KHALID: Gotcha. Domenico, we've been talking here about Tennessee and Florida, two states where we've been able to see real, tangible effects from these new congressional maps. But on net, how would you say redistricting has reshaped the political landscape that we're looking at for this November's elections?

MONTANARO: Well, it reshapes it every decade, right? And, you know, each of these states and redistricting fights really matter because these will be the districts for the next 10 years. And if Democrats want to catch up, they're going to have to start winning a lot more state legislative seats. And there's been a lot more of a focus on that in the last few years, but they still have a steep hill ahead of them.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. Blaise Gainey of WLPN, thank you so much for joining us.

GAINEY: Thank you.

KHALID: And we'll be back in your feeds tomorrow. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.