Lawmakers in several states are debating precisely how many Black voters are needed in a legislative district to ensure they can elect the representative they want
Adam Hollier is a lieutenant in the Army Reserves, a paratrooper, Detroit native, a Democrat and a Black man. He is also a state senator who represents a majority-Black district that stretches across the northeastern edge of his economically battered and resilient hometown. That critical mass of Black voters, Hollier argues, ensures he has a chance to be elected and give voice to people who have long been ignored by the political system.
Rebecca Szetela is a lawyer who describes herself as an independent, and a white woman who chairs Michigan’s new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Its job is to redraw the lines of legislative seats to promote more partisan competition in a state where Republicans have dominated the Legislature for decades. One of the best ways to do that, and empower minority voters, Szetela and other commissioners argue, is putting some of the majority-Black neighborhoods in Hollier’s district in other seats, where they may have more say over Michigan’s leadership.
For Hollier’s 2nd Senate District, that means some of its Detroit neighborhoods would be grafted on to mostly white districts, and his own seat would stretch across Eight Mile Road, the infamous boundary between Detroit and its first-ring, majority white suburbs. Its Black voting-age population would drop to 42%.
Hollier, like other Black lawmakers, is furious, saying that move jeopardizes Black elected officials. “By and large, Black people vote for Black people and white people vote for white people,” Hollier said. “It’s just the reality. It’s got nothing to do with me. Draw maps that majority-Black communities can win.”
Whether Hollier is right is at the heart of a heated debate over how to ensure racial and ethnic minority communities can elect the officeholders of their choice. The fight is complicated and wonky — like most surrounding the once-a-decade redistricting process. But the stakes are clear: Black, Latino and Asian Americans are underrepresented in state legislatures.
For decades, the widely accepted strategy was to group together Black voters so they comprised a majority in a statehouse or congressional district. That principle was enshrined in the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires the creation of districts with a majority or plurality of Black — or other minority racial or ethnic group — voters in places where the white population has a history of preventing them from electing their chosen representatives.
That strategy was reinforced by partisan politics. Republicans have been happy to draw districts with large numbers of Black voters because Black voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats. The effect was to pack Democrats into just a few districts and leave other parts of the state more safely Republican.
But politics has changed dramatically since the law was passed in 1965. Now, only 18 of the 53 members of the Congressional Black Caucus were elected in districts that are majority African American. Rising Black politicians like Rep. Antonio Delgado and Rep. Joe Neguse represent heavily white areas in New York’s Hudson River Valley and Boulder, Colorado respectively.
“I think we’re in a new age now,” said Bakari Sellers, an African American former South Carolina state legislator. “If you’re talented enough, you can win in a 30-35% Black district. … We can be more competitive around the country.”
But that’s a hard sell to some lawmakers and advocates pushing to put more people of color in statehouses and Congress. Black legislators make up less than 10% of state legislators in the U.S., although 14.2% of the population is Black, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Latinos are 18.7% of the population, and just 5.3% of state lawmakers. Asians comprise 2% of legislators but 7.2% of the population.
In Nevada, Latino and other activist groups opposed maps drawn by the Democratic-controlled Legislature because the plan spread Latinos broadly around the state’s congressional and legislative districts to increase the odds of Democratic victories. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers asked a commission to propose maps to counter ones drawn by the GOP-controlled Legislature. But Black and Latino Democrats objected to the commission’s maps because they would scatter minority voters across several districts.
“I get what Republicans have done, completely, but I’m not willing to sacrifice Black representation and brown representation, I’m just not,” said Sen. Lena Taylor, one of two African American Democrats in the Wisconsin state Senate, who voted against her party’s map.
The other, Sen. LaTonya Johnson, disagreed, saying the Democratic plan was far better than the alternative: “I don’t believe that the maps proposed would block Black candidates of choice, but I would rather have to fight harder for my seat than have my community suffer another 10 years under a Republican gerrymander.”
The risks in balancing the racial composition of districts were illustrated in this month’s Virginia elections. Two Black Democratic delegates narrowly lost their seats in districts that are still majority African American — but had recently been redrawn to have fewer Black voters. Control of the House of Delegates will come down to two other races that are in recounts.
Jonathan Cervas, one of the experts who redrew the Virginia districts in 2019, said the aim was to rectify what a court had found was discrimination against Black voters. He argued that the Voting Rights Act does not guarantee Black legislators will always be reelected. “The problem is the Democrats had a bad election,” Cervas said.
Still, the shift toward unpacking districts is likely to lead to turnover in legislatures and Congress. In North Carolina, a new GOP-approved map cut the share of Black voters in Democratic Rep. G.K Butterfield’s district from 45% to 38%. The nine-term African American congressman announced his resignation this month and called the new map “racially gerrymandered.”
At the other extreme, Democrats filed a lawsuit this month alleging that Alabama Republicans improperly packed Black voters into the state’s 7th Congressional District, making it home to nearly one out of every three African Americans in the state.
One quarter of Alabama’s population is Black but the 7th is the sole district represented by an African American in Congress, Rep. Terri Sewell. It is also the only Democratic-held district in the state. A more even distribution of Black voters, Democrats argue, might help then win a second.
Increasing competition is one of the goals of Michigan’s commission, which voters created in 2018 after decades of partisan gerrymandering controlled by Republicans. The commission also is tasked with considering representation of minority communities and following the Voting Rights Act.
It is advancing maps that would cut the number of majority-Black districts from two to zero in Congress and from roughly a dozen to as few as three in the Legislature, pending final votes. Commissioners argue that there is evidence that Black candidates can still win elections. In 2020, for example, racial minorities won 19 of 20 legislative seats where Black people constitute at least 35% of the voting-age population.
“What we have done is taken those areas and divided them into multiple districts so that there’s actually more districts where minority voters will be able to elect their candidates of choice, which should actually have the effect of increasing the representation among the African American community,” Szetela said.
But Republicans and others, including the state’s civil rights director, predict legal troubles ahead.
Jamie Roe, a GOP consultant tracking the redistricting process, noted Michigan has had two majority-Black congressional districts since at least the 1960s — whether drawn by legislators or courts.
“They have opened themselves terribly to a Voting Rights Act challenge,” he said.
Riccardi reported from Denver.