Drawing the Line

Drawing the Lines

As late-arriving Census data narrows the redistricting window, citizen groups hope for public input and transparency. History does not give reason to expect much of either.

by jesse fox mayshark • May 11, 2011


Knox County's state legislative districts are likely to get a close look from the republican supermajority.

After the Census comes the redistricting.

Some states have moved to nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

Every 10 years, state legislatures across the country use the new population data provided by the U.S. Census to redraw political lines for state and federal legislative offices. Traditionally, this has presented an opportunity for a party in power to shape the electoral map to its own advantage, and to the disadvantage of its opponents — a practice so entrenched that the verb coined to describe it, “gerrymander,” dates all the way back to 1812.

In recent decades, some states have moved to try to limit political influence on redistricting by assigning the task to nonpartisan commissions. But the majority, including Tennessee, leave it up to the Legislature.

“The redistricting process is super important, because this really is where power is built,” said Matia Powell, executive director of the progressive nonprofit CivicTN, during a webinar last week hosted by the nonpartisan think tank Think Tennessee. “This is how districts are developed, and how much power your community has collectively.”

(You can watch the full Think Tennessee discussion here.)

Think Tennessee has published a three-part series on the redistricting process, including four recommendations for a transparent and public process:

  • Share information about the process online via websites and social media.
  • Host meetings to solicit community input.
  • Allow the public virtual access to all redistricting meetings.
  • Actively seek public feedback on draft maps.

“I should note that as we took a look around the country, we saw that 32 states already host meetings to solicit community input on the process,” said Shanna Singh Hughey, president of Think Tennessee, during the webinar.

Another organization deeply concerned with the redistricting process is the League of Women Voters. The nonpartisan organization has a national effort called “People Powered Fair Maps” that advocates for redistricting based on public input and fair representation of voters.

“When it’s partisan, you’re leaving out a whole group of your voters,” said Mary Ann Reeves, 2nd vice president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and a board member of the organization’s Oak Ridge chapter. “The voters should be the ones making these decisions as to who their representatives are.”

Reeves said an essential principle for drawing districts should be protecting “communities of interest” — recognizing that voters in an entity like the City of Knoxville, for example, have common interests that deserve representation rather than being carved up to dilute their voice. Communities of interest also include racial and ethnic minorities.

A Partisan History

That is not, for the most part, how things have been done in Tennessee in the past. During the many decades of Democratic Party dominance in the state, districts were typically drawn to favor Democrats. In 2010, the first redistricting since the Republicans took control of the Legislature, it went the other way.

The results are not hard to see. In a state where the Republican candidate has won between 59 and 61 percent of the vote in the last three presidential elections, the state House of Representatives is now 74 percent Republican, and the state Senate is 82 percent Republican.

In Knox County, where former President Donald Trump won 56 percent of the vote last November, five of seven state representatives are Republicans — 71 percent — as are all three state senators.

Since the districts all have to have roughly the same number of voters, that kind of overrepresentation is accomplished by two principal means:

  • “Cracking,” deliberately breaking apart areas that tend to vote Democratic, scattering their voters across multiple districts with Republican majorities; and
  • ”Packing,” lumping a lot of Democratic voters together in one district, minimizing their influence in other districts.

There are some legal limits to how far this can be pushed, although Reeves notes that those have been loosened by two Supreme Court decisions since the 2010 redistricting. One struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required federal approval of changes to voting laws in states with histories of racial discrimination. The other essentially said the courts have no role in addressing partisan gerrymandering.

Reeves said the League of Women Voters hopes this year’s process allows for more public input than in 2010. “It was all done in secrecy,” she said. “They will say, ‘Oh yeah, we had public input.’ But the public input (period) was very short.”

It could be even shorter this year, given the lateness of the Census, which was delayed by complications of the COVID-19 pandemic. States will not receive the necessary data to begin drawing districts until mid-August, with final information due by the end of September. The state Legislature typically adopts new districts as soon as it opens session in January of the year following the return of Census data.

“Usually, we would have data by now and states would be busy churning through that and making maps,” said Michelle Davis, executive director of RedistrictingOnline.org, during the Think Tennessee panel. “But we're still waiting.”

Moving Forward

The state House and Senate give every indication of moving forward with the process as they have handled it before. A bare-bones page on the House’s website includes just some initial population information, with no timeline for the process or indication of public engagement opportunities.

In the Senate, state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has appointed three legislators from the body’s leadership to oversee the effort in Tennessee’s three grand divisions: Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, for East Tennessee; Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, for Middle Tennessee; and Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, for West Tennessee.

“Of course, they will get input from the members in their areas too,” Massey said in a text message.

Because the state’s overall population grew by about 564,000 people since 2010, the legislative districts will have to grow. House districts will need to have an “ideal population” of 69,806 apiece, up from 64,102 a decade ago, and Senate districts have grown to 209,419 from 192,306.

Massey said that in Knox County, she and Sen. Richard Briggs’ existing districts are already “pretty close” to their target numbers so may not need large adjustments.

One Knox County district likely to get Republican attention is the 13th House District, a seat currently held by Rep. Gloria Johnson, one of the delegation’s two Democrats. The seat has swung back and forth between the parties over the past decade, and the outspoken Johnson is no favorite of the majority party.

“Rumors say it’s going to be changed a lot,” Johnson said in an interview. “That’s all I hear are rumors. They don’t come to me and say, ‘We’re going to redistrict you into oblivion.’”

For her part, she endorses the idea of a nonpartisan redistricting commission. A bill sponsored by Democrats this year would have committed the state to a nonpartisan process with abundant public input. It did not advance in either chamber of the Legislature.

Johnson said the disproportionate representation created by partisan redistricting can lead the Legislature to ignore or not even be aware of the actual views of the state’s voters.

“More than 60 percent of people in all the districts want Medicaid expanded, and they refused,” she said.

She acknowledged the Republican argument that the Democratic Party used to do the same thing.

“Well, ‘used to do it’ doesn’t make it right,” Johnson said.