Redistricting in Tennessee: An explanation of how the system works
Schematic of a potential non-partisan gerrymandered congressional district map. (Lucas Brooks)
Redistricting occurs only every ten years, so regular citizens can find it easy to miss. For those unfamiliar with the process, it can seem intentionally murky and unbalanced. However, understanding redistricting helps Tennesseans stay informed about their own representatives and if a change in their district is likely to happen.
Redistricting is the name for the drawing of new congressional, state legislative, and even city council boundaries after every U.S. census. Due to Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims, two landmark United States Supreme Court cases from the Civil Rights movement, district populations, both state legislative and congressional, need to be roughly equal. If the district boundaries were not redrawn with population shifts, there would be mass representational imbalance. For a long while in Tennessee, that was the case.
For most of the 20th century until the 1960s, Tennessee used the same state legislative map while the state added 1.5 million people to the population. Until the U.S. Supreme Court case of Baker v. Carr, which jump started the use of judicial review in order to force fair legislative representation, Tennesseans lived in districts that would have made more sense in the Gilded Age rather than the Atomic Era. While the new maps of the 1960s rectified the immediate problems of disproportionate representation, they still made use of gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the term for redistricting in a manner that is meant to benefit a single group or political party. The name derives from a plan early in U.S. history, in which a district was drawn to divide the support of the Federalist Party in order to create several districts more favorable to Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s Democratic-Republican Party.
A more modern example is the case of Pennsylvania’s current congressional map. In 2018, the state Supreme Court forced a redraw of the map after it concluded that the districts were drawn to unfairly benefit the Republican Party. Lines swooped in and out of Democratic suburbs and city centers, linking them with the more Republican ex-urbs and rural counties. The Pennsylvania General Assembly that drew the maps in 2010 was dominated by the Republican Party, much like the Tennessee General Assembly is today.
While a few states have made efforts to take direct control of redistricting out of the hands of politicians, Tennessee is not included in that group. The General Assembly still draws the new maps and approves them; the only check on their power is the Governor, who must sign the bill into law for it to go into effect. Specifically, the maps are to be created in the Senate Judiciary Committee, currently chaired by Senator Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and the House Select Committee for Redistricting.
Members have not yet been assigned to the Select Committee for Redistricting, and the use of such a committee represents a departure from the traditions of previous cycles. In 2012, the House used the State and Local Government Committee, although the committee has since been split into two separate ones. Both chambers of the General Assembly are dominated by Republican supermajorities, so it is likely that the maps created early next year will favor Republicans like Tennessee’s political geography already does.
Several states are facing a tight constitutional window due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on the national census. Tennessee only stipulates redistricting must be complete by the April 7, 2022, the candidate filing deadline for both legislative and congressional seats. Redistricting for local bodies such as county commissions and city councils have a shorter window; they must be finished by January 1, 2022.
Congressional apportionment data, the numbers that determine how many congressional seats each state retains, was released on April 26 and Tennessee kept its nine districts. Currently, the Census Bureau estimates that they will be able to release demographic data by census blocks in mid-to-late August; this data is what all redistricting maps are built from, so the bulk of the work cannot begin without this data.
Any delay, especially one that might extend a month or more past the traditional timeframe, stands to most hurt challengers to incumbents, both in primary and general election battles. Each day between when the new maps become official and the filing deadline are days that challengers can decide to run for public office or be courted by one of the parties to do so. Incumbents are difficult to beat in any election cycle, so an already tight redistricting calendar becoming more compressed does not lend itself to the benefit of any challenger.
Beyond the filing deadline, there are few restrictions placed upon the General Assembly’s ability to draw the new maps and even fewer restrictions on criteria they must follow while drafting a proposal. The legislature can redraw state legislature boundaries multiple times before the next census is conducted. For example, new district boundaries for the state House passed in 2022 could be redrawn in 2026 if political will to do so exists. Most states only allow redistricting once a decade, after the most recent census. When actually drawing the maps, the legislators also have few criteria that guide or restrict their actions. They must abide by federal guidelines regarding roughly equal population between all districts and no district may be drawn with the intent to dilute the power of minority voters.
Unlike other states that provide clear-cut criteria about what the legislature may consider when drafting a proposal, Tennessee only mandates that state legislative maps should split as few counties as is reasonable and that there should be an attempt to preserve political subdivisions where possible. Neither of these rules apply to congressional maps nor are they strictly enforced, as evidenced by the case Moore v. Tennessee, which challenged the state Senate map on grounds that a General Assembly Black Caucus map split fewer counties than the official map. Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled in the state’s favor and the Senate map was upheld. The state Supreme Court most recently overturned a map in 1983, so it is not a common occurrence.
The previous court involvement begs the question of how a court challenge would play out now, considering the recent changes made to the state judiciary. The new Court of Special Appeals, recently signed into law by Gov. Lee, would function as another appellate court for the state. The new court has original jurisdiction over matters of apportionment and redistricting. If the three-judge panel decides that any redistricting plans need to be rectified, the court must first give the General Assembly at least 15 days to try and fix their own errors. Only after these 15 days have passed without a substitute from the General Assembly may the court create an interim plan to be used in the next election. This interim plan is bound by law to be a ‘least changes’ plan or one that rectifies the underlying issues with the fewest changes possible.
Junaid Odubeko, an adjunct professor of election law at Vanderbilt University Law School and a partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, says the receptiveness of any court — whether state or federal — to a redistricting challenge will rest upon the grounds of the complaint, which judges are assigned to hear the case, and whether the charge is against the entire plan or just a specific portion. It is too early to tell if Tennessee’s process will be as litigious as other states have been in the past few years.
As anyone who has lived here long can tell, Tennessee has been growing rapidly for the past decade. The population growth is heavily concentrated in the suburbs, especially those in Middle Tennessee. Many of the major counties in East Tennessee will be losing districts. Knox County, for example, currently contains seven whole House districts but will have to split the seventh district with a neighboring county after redistricting. Hamilton County could retain five of the current districts and split an additional one with another county. Davidson, Montgomery, Rutherford, and Williamson counties could all gain part of a district while retaining their current number. In West Tennessee, Shelby County currently has 14 districts but would have to split its last state house district with a neighboring county under the current census projections.
The Voting Rights Act stipulates majority-minority seats are federally protected from being dismantled without good reason; unfortunately for several communities, several of these districts are severely underpopulated. In the state house, there are 14 majority-minority districts and five are underpopulated by 5% or more. The lion’s share of these districts are located in Memphis with three more in Nashville, one in Chattanooga, and one more in rural West Tennessee. Four of the most underpopulated ones are in Memphis, but the district found in Madison and Hardeman Counties has the lowest population.
For the state senate, there are only four majority-minority districts and half of them are underpopulated by more than 5%. Three of these are in Memphis, including the two severely underpopulated ones; Nashville holds the lone minority-majority senate seat that is overpopulated. In addition, the state’s sole majority-minority congressional district, the 9th, is underpopulated by 5.83% or roughly 43,000 people.
While even the broad strokes of the final maps are still being discussed and debated, there are some general expectations for what the new districts will look like. Kent Syler, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University and former Chief of Staff for long-time Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon, foresees more of the state’s political power becoming centered in Middle Tennessee, specifically the four ring counties around Davidson (Sumner, Wilson, Rutherford, and Williamson). These four suburban counties are the fastest-growing in the state and should all gain state house districts.
The biggest losers for this redistricting cycle will likely be rural communities, as more and more political power is concentrated in Tennessee’s major metropolitan areas. In the congressional arena, Syler expects a battle of opposing pressures on the question of how to draw Nashville. The Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is quite slim, so national Republican groups have been encouraging state-level Republicans to create more favorable districts wherever they can. In Tennessee, that effort would involve splitting up Nashville among three or four rural-dominated districts.
But the Nashville business community wants to keep the 5th District centered in Davidson. Although several national political commentators, including Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report and Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, expect the district to be cut up, the effort to keep the 5th intact has support from an unlikely source: the Republican congressmen from surrounding districts. If the 5th District is split, each of the surrounding districts would gain several thousand Democratic voters. If the conservative suburbs in the ring counties keep shifting left, all those new voters could endanger the sitting Republican congressmen.
The Democratic-held seat in Memphis is safe because it is a majority-minority district and is protected by the Voting Rights Act. Any effort to crack Memphis would garner unwanted attention from the Department of Justice and surely result in such a congressional map being thrown out.
The same does not apply to Nashville because partisan gerrymandering is legal in Tennessee, but gerrymandering based on race was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. That does not mean that the Republicans in the General Assembly have free reign over the map; the more aggressive they are with creating favorable districts will just increase the likelihood that a portion of a proposed map gets thrown out. A balance must be struck between greed and proportionality.
Using data provided by the 2019 American Community Survey, which is a way for the Census Bureau to collect demographic data between each national census, I have created a set of maps exhibiting what a nonpartisan map might look like for both chambers and the congressional map. To accomplish this, I used the online tool “Dave’s Redistricting App”, which lets anyone create a redistricting proposal for free. This tool does not have the most recent presidential election data on file for Tennessee, so some of the recent leftward shifts in suburban areas are not depicted in the competitiveness of these maps. Were that 2020 data available, a few of the suburban districts in Knox, Rutherford, and Shelby counties could be more competitive or even Democratic-leaning.
Overall, I tried to prioritize keeping communities of interest intact, a criterion praised by redistricting reform advocates for its focus on communities with common policy concerns that could be ignored if the area in question is divided among multiple districts. Common examples of these communities are ones that fall along racial or ethnic lines, but socioeconomic similarities can form these types of communities as well.
In the congressional map, the 9th district is preserved as a majority-minority seat and the 5th District is still Nashville-centric but picks up a small bit of suburban Rutherford. The largest changes come when looking at the Republican districts in East and Middle Tennessee. I have cleaned up the borders so that the districts are more compact than they are currently. Instead of a 4th District that stretches from Cleveland to Columbia and a 3rd District from Chattanooga to Oneida, each district is now contained to a single geographic area of the state. For example, there is a Chattanooga district and a rural Cumberland plateau district, instead of multiple districts that swoop in and out of these communities of interest.
Moving on to the state Senate map, the major focus here was to keep communities of interest intact while keeping districts mostly compact. There are a high number of split counties, but the population projections for Tennessee mean that such a practice is a necessity. In addition, while there is one less majority-minority district than the previous iteration, there are an additional two districts that are above 40% minority population. Such districts can be called “opportunity districts” because, while not making up a majority of the population, these districts contain enough minority communities to provide minority candidates with a solid base of support and the chance of winning representation.
For the state House map, much of the above holds true. I attempted to keep districts compact and centered on communities of interest while also limiting county and precinct splits. For the majority-minority seats, my proposal has 12 which are two less than the current map. However, there are also six seats with a 40% or higher minority portion of the population that do not reach a majority, creating opportunity districts. Also, as mentioned above, the competitive and lean categories serve better as rules of thumb rather than steadfast indicators. Even disregarding the outdatedness of the data, a particularly strong candidate for either party can put a seat in play that would otherwise be considered uncompetitive. Each of these proposals can be examined in depth at the following links: Congress, Senate, & House.
The official 2020 census demographic data will necessitate changes in these boundaries in order for the populations between districts to be close enough. Also, these proposals do not include consideration of incumbency but in Tennessee, a state legislator must reside in the district they represent. That fact alone leads to several creative ideas for how to draw the maps as most politicians prefer a safe district. It is in the interest of the people, however, not that their representatives to Nashville and to Washington feel safe in their political prospects but that the positions of the people are properly reflected.
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