Commentary

Commentary: Republican maps are undermining democracy

January 18, 2022 11:11 am
On Wednesday, the legislative redistricting committee unveiled new congressional maps. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On Wednesday, the legislative redistricting committee unveiled new congressional maps. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The proposed electoral maps recently unveiled by Republicans represent not only a brazen partisan power move, but a party  disconnected from and disinterested in the voices of the people.

Despite both the House and Senate Redistricting Committees holding public hearings in the last few months of 2021 and accepting submissions from both private citizens and citizen groups (practices that are to be commended and should be made standard), elected Republicans have shown very little meaningful engagement with the citizenry, essentially no engagement with the opposition party, and only lip service to the notion of transparency.

It seems they know how to put on a good show using the language of democracy as a cover for deeply anti-democratic behaviors. These maps represent in the best cases a maintenance of the already gerrymandered status quo and in worst cases an attempt to further disenfranchise voters who don’t vote for their party. Their maps may pass legal muster, but they are certainly not fair maps and to claim they are is pure gaslighting.

Let’s start with the one that has garnered so much attention already: Tennessee’s nine Congressional districts. The district shapes make very little sense. District 3, (including Chattanooga, maintains its pinched hourglass shape. District 9, including most of Memphis, now spills into a neighboring county, despite Shelby County having more than enough population to keep the district within its boundaries.

But the most absurd part is what happens to Nashville: Davidson County has been split three ways, spilling significantly and extensively into rural areas, all bending and curving in ways reminiscent of circus performers, especially  the new District 5. Despite the chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee claiming that “Nashville will benefit from having a Congressional delegation of three, not just one,” a more likely outcome is that none of the three representatives will win a majority vote within the Nashville portions of their districts. This map is designed to hand eight of the state’s nine seats (89%) to Republicans, despite the fact that for the last decade Tennesseans have consistently voted ~60% for Republicans from President to Governor to Congress.

But that’s not all. On the Senate side, the redistricting committee reviewed map proposals back in December. There were four Congressional maps shared then, including one proposed by the state Democratic Caucus.  Notably absent at the time was any Republican proposal, despite indications from the committee chair that this was the time to get maps on the public record so that citizens and members of the General Assembly had time to consider them. If that was the case, why did Republicans not unveil a proposal then?

Senate Committee maps can be found at:

https://capitol.tn.gov/senate/committees/redistricting.html

House Committee maps can be found at:

https://www.capitol.tn.gov/house/committees/Redistricting.aspx

There are several common themes in the four submitted Congressional maps. Districts were relatively compact – more so than our current maps. Presenters shared a rationale behind why they drew the shapes as they did. And Nashville was preserved whole.

None of this is true in the Republican plan, suggesting they simply ignored all the proposals.

On the House side it’s worse. The House committee unveiled the Republican proposed map in the same meeting at which other maps were first presented, and then immediately proceeded to adopt it. They took no time to consider how the merits of other proposals might influence the committee’s work.

The procedural pattern was similar regarding maps for the General Assembly. The House committee presented and adopted a state House map in the same meeting at which they first saw maps submitted by the public and the Democratic Caucus. Clearly House Republicans had no interest in engaging with anyone’s ideas but their own. When the vote was called, the committee chair struck his gavel before all the “nay” votes had been spoken – and it was not a roll call vote, so we have no official record of the final tally. So much for transparency.

Republican-drawn maps may pass legal muster, but they are certainly not fair maps and to claim they are is pure gaslighting.

The Senate committee did slightly better, with five proposals for Senate maps on display since December, though again a Republican proposal was notably absent. But what they released this week shows minimal engagement with those maps. There are a few parts where they possibly borrowed from the Democratic proposal, but if so, it was only in the most disingenuous ways possible. And they missed a consistent theme stated directly by every presenter that day: we should aim to minimize not just the number of counties split between districts, but also splitting cities and towns. So why are Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Murfreesboro sliced up?

Several Republican legislators have justified pushing these maps out of committee quickly on the premise that there are other points at which changes can be considered, including other committee review and eventually a vote on each chamber’s floor. What is more likely is that the same line of logic will keep being used to push these maps through, only to be flipped on the chamber floors by claiming the committees were the place to propose significant changes.

If Republicans truly want transparency, they should start with a clear explanation of why they drew the districts as they did. Then they should meet with Democrats to draw maps that reflect the best aspects of both — or better, all –proposals. Anything less is an abrogation of their civic duty and public trust and a failure to all Tennesseans.

 

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Shawn Trivette, Ph.D.
Shawn Trivette, Ph.D.

Dr. Shawn Trivette has been a Tennessean most of his life, growing up outside of Knoxville, attending college in Cookeville, and now residing in the Chattanooga area. He earned his PhD in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst in 2012 and has previously held faculty appointments in Louisiana and at UTC. He currently works remotely as a data scientist for a non-profit based in Washington, DC. In his spare time, he has been analyzing Tennessee voting patterns from 2008-2020; more on this project can be found at https://sites.google.com/view/tn-gerrymandering/.

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