A map and key from the U.S. Census Bureau showing the population of Black residents in Tennessee’s counties. (U.S. Census Bureau)
As Tennessee lawmakers prepare to redraw districts, civil rights organizations are working to prevent further gerrymandering ahead of statewide elections.
The Tennessee Legislature and municipal officials are currently redrawing congressional and state district maps based on data from the 2020 U.S. Census, which was released in August 2021, and are set to complete their work by April 2022. These officials will decide how the state’s congressional and state legislative district boundaries will be drawn for the next 10 years, until the next census.
In the meantime, several voting and civil rights organizations are launching statewide campaigns to educate communities on redistricting and how it affects their representation in government.
On Tuesday, Memphis For All, the Tennessee NAACP, League of Women Voters, CivicTN and other civil rights organizations hosted a public meeting to discuss West Tennessee’s redistricting hearing. Community leaders and residents expressed their frustration with Tennessee’s legislators having total control of how district maps are decided.
“The redistricting process should involve as much citizen participation as possible,” said Byron Elam, member of the Jackson-Madison County NAACP. “Political leaders should not redraw districts that protect their own political interests in the interests of their political parties.
“The people must have a say and input into how they will be represented,” he added.
Much has changed in Tennessee since the 2010 census, and in 2012, maps were redrawn to reflect the changes in congressional districts as populations shifted.
Prior to the 2012 redistricting, the 8th Congressional District in West Tennessee consisted of western rural counties, such as Tipton and Lauderdale County, and a sliver of north Shelby County. The latter “is actually closer in characteristics to rural West Tennessee than it is to your more suburban, urban core characteristics in Shelby County,” said Kendra Lee, policy manager at Equity Alliance.
After maps were redrawn, Shelby County went from accounting for roughly 13,000 votes to 100,000 in District 8.
“That was the clearest case of gerrymandering because no matter who the rural West Tennesseans vote for in District 8, they’ll never have true representation because so many votes come from Shelby County,” said Lee.
“We literally just want to change it back to the way it was before it was gerrymandered. We just want to be able to say that Shelby County is only going to be responsible for electing one congressperson, as we should,” she added.
But this is just one example of gerrymandering among many, said Lee and other civil rights advocates.
From 2010-20, Davidson County accounted for the most population growth in numerical terms. But Trousdale County showed the largest percentage growth, with a leap of almost 50%, despite being a rural county. That’s in part because the census counted inmates in the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, which opened in 2016.
“Pretty much a majority of their population growth had to do with building a prison and the prison population,” said CivicTN executive director Matia Powell at Tuesday’s redistricting hearing, calling the county an example of prison gerrymandering.
Racial gerrymandering has also been an issue, despite the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, several counties in West Tennessee have large Black populations. Haywood County is 50% Black; Madison County is 38% Black; and Fayette County is 27%. Hardeman County is 42% Black and Lauderdale County is 35% Black.
Between all these counties, there’s only one Black representative in the state House.
“There are no state senate Black elected officials (in that area) and there are no congressional elected officials. That is a violation of the Voting RIghts Act, because those counties definitely have numbers that are too high to have 0% of representatives, and it’s only that way because they’ve been gerrymandered into oblivion,” said Lee.
And gerrymandering is a direct result of the public being unable to address redistricting, added speakers on Tuesday.
The day these maps get released (by the legislature) and we see that there are still huge constitutional violations, you can immediately go and file a lawsuit and get the support you need. – Kendra Lee, The Equity Alliance
The day these maps get released (by the legislature) and we see that there are still huge constitutional violations, you can immediately go and file a lawsuit and get the support you need.
– Kendra Lee, The Equity Alliance
While some states, such as North Carolina, allow the public to participate in redistricting committees, the Tennessee Legislature does not. Because of this, organizations like CivicTN have granted funds to other groups, such as Memphis For All, in order to launch a statewide campaign aimed at educating and allowing local communities to have a say in the redistricting process. This includes conducting social media campaigns and public hearings in different sections of the state.
“We need to come together and participate in this process and make sure all of our votes have equal weight. No matter where you’re from or what’s in your wallet, you should pick your leaders, not the other way around,” said Bennett Foster, executive director of Memphis For All Education Fund, a nonpartisan civic-engagement organization.
Community leaders and residents will use the redistricting hearings to present census data in order to allow the public to draw their own maps based on the population shifts. These maps will be presented to lawmakers on the redistricting committee.
“We feel like it’s so critical that we get involved in communities and ask for community advocates to give their input so that legislators can see that people across the state are concerned about how they draw the lines,” said Gloria Sweetwater, president of the Tennessee NAACP.
Lawmakers are not obliged to use the maps drawn during these public hearings, but advocates said their main goal is to raise awareness to equip the public with the information they need to confront lawmakers.
“The day these maps get released and we see that there are still huge constitutional violations, you can immediately go and file a lawsuit and get the support you need,” said Lee.
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