This secret form of voter suppression might be the civil rights issue of our time

Michael Harriot, The Root | 4/12/2017, 1 p.m.
When federal judge Nelva Gonzales struck down Texas’ discriminatory voter-identification law on Monday, voting rights advocates applauded the ruling as ...
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When federal judge Nelva Gonzales struck down Texas’ discriminatory voter-identification law on Monday, voting rights advocates applauded the ruling as if the minorities barred from casting ballots had won the Super Bowl.

Amy Rudd, the attorney who represented the NAACP Texas State Conference and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said, “We hope today’s decision sends a strong message to the Texas Legislature that any deliberate attempt to restrict Texas minority citizens’ right to vote will not be tolerated.” They all hope that the court’s rejection of Texas’ draconian S.B. 14 will set a precedent for other states with laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, paving the way for fair and equal elections.

Except it won’t.

Voter-ID laws are just the latest tool used by Republicans to silence the voices of people who don’t fall within the usual bounds of the conservative demographic, but they are not the most effective. The most potent and practical form of election rigging has been practiced since America was founded. It is neither rare nor frowned upon. It is an anti-democratic open secret used in every election to silence the voices of millions in every state and national election. It is a nasty tactic employed by everyone from the Founding Fathers to Donald Trump, and yes, it is legal. It rewinds many of the advances made by the civil rights movement and laughs in the face of its detractors. It goes by many names: redistricting, electioneering, voter mapmaking and too many others to list.

Most people just call it “gerrymandering.”

What is gerrymandering?

If Kevin Hart were explaining this, he would begin by saying, “Well, the way our democracy is set up ... ”

Most cities and states are divided into voting districts. The city council members, state legislators and congresspeople for whom votes are cast represent these districts, which were traditionally divided by neighborhood boundaries, municipal borders and geographic characteristics (rivers, mountains, roadways, etc.).

In 1810, one of the original signers of the Constitution, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, was running for re-election and redrew the lines of a voting district to favor his party. When one of his colleagues noted that the redrawn district resembled a salamander, the term “gerrymander” was born.

Since then, lawmakers have increasingly found ways to carve out districts that are favorable to their political purposes. One of the most famous instances of gerrymandering is Illinois’ 4th District—a perfect illustration of the political term “packing.” The 71-percent-Latino congressional district follows no natural path but packs all of Chicago’s Hispanic neighborhoods into one congressional district.

This blatant map drawing ensures that the citizens will always have one Hispanic member in the House of Representatives, but reduces the impact that this large population could have throughout the city to a single blot on the map and a single voice among the 435 House members. That’s gerrymandering.

Who gets to draw the maps?

In most states, whoever is in power gets to shape the districts, which—because of gerrymandering, usually means Republicans. There are only six states that use bipartisan commissions to draw their districts. And the GOP continues to extend its no-holds-barred political approach to gerrymandering. In 2010 the Republicans devised the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, a plan to redraw the entire country’s political map to fit their needs. In the 2012 election, Democratic congressional candidates received 100,000 more votes than Republican candidates but lost 13 of the 18 seats. In other words, 51 percent of the vote equated to 28 percent of the seats.