Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, holds hands with other members of the Democratic Senate Caucus after Gov. Bill Lee’s third State of the State Address. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally appointed a bipartisan panel Friday to draw new state and federal district maps, naming a Memphis Democrat as a chairman to the panel and ordering the group to focus on public input.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, will be joined by Sen. Raumesh Akbari, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, as co-chairs.
“This committee will help ensure my commitment to an open and transparent redistricting process. The Republican-led redistricting process 10 years ago solicited public input for the first time. That precedent will continue this year,” McNally said in a statement. “Every legislator and every member of the public who wishes will have their voice heard in this process. Public input will help the Legislature create a fair and legal plan based on the census numbers provided to us. It is a tough job balancing both our federal and state constitutional mandates, but I believe this committee and the General Assembly is up to the task.”
Also serving on the committee are Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, and Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon.
Akbari said Friday Democrats want the General Assembly to approve “fair maps” that keep communities whole. One of the biggest concerns among Democrats is that Republicans will split up the 5th Congressional District seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville and move Democratic legislators into the same districts, forcing them to run against each other.
Democrats have also said the plan adopted in 2012 reduced the influence of Black voters in Chattanooga districts and eliminated a minority legislator there.
“Speaker McNally’s committee on districting is a step toward achieving that goal” of fair maps, Akbari said. “We plan to push for an open and transparent process that engages with the public for feedback as much as possible, and we will aggressively call out any attempt to minimize the influence of voters in underserved communities.”
The committee’s main job is to review census data and look at the impact of population changes on Senate districts. Heavy growth in Nashville and population losses in West and East Tennessee are expected to have a major impact on new district lines.
For instance, Republican map drawers will have to figure out how to keep rural West Tennessee senators in their seats amid serious population loss.
Public hearings are to be held to outline the redistricting process and let members of the public know how to submit their own plans. Whether those hearings will be held across the state is unclear.
House Democrats have said they plan to hold hearings statewide to gather public comments.
The Senate is offering the public software to construct redistricting plans on the Tennessee General Assembly website.
Plans submitted by the public must include the entire state and comply with the Tennessee Constitution and Voting Rights Act, in addition to staying within the ideal population ranges. Based on a population of 6.9 million, Senate districts are expected to have more than 209,000 residents.
Senate redistricting sites are available at https://capitol.tn.gov/senate/committees/redistricting.html and https://tnsen-redistricting.esriemcs.com/redistricting/.
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