The rush to redefine America’s political identities

With new census data, states are redrawing maps for electoral boundaries, but not without many more voters demanding a say in this pivotal piece of democracy.

People listen to speakers during the Redistricting Reform Rally Aug. 11 at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.

Like a starting gun at a foot race, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data Aug. 12 on population shifts in each state based on its 2020 survey. The data dump has triggered a once-a-decade scramble by all 50 states to redraw their electoral boundaries, which will influence the makeup of state legislatures and the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Most states may finish by Jan. 1. This time around, however, a big spotlight will be on their work.

Normally too boring, complex, or hidden for voters to care, the 2021 process has attracted unprecedented interest in a highly polarized America. From town halls to county fairs, Americans are debating how to define the collective identity of each new district. At many public hearings on redistricting, hundreds of people have showed up.

In decades past, the process was highly partisan and behind closed doors. In most statehouses, both Democrats and Republicans used their respective majorities to “gerrymander” districts in favor of their party or particular groups. With the rise of sophisticated computers, the map drawing has often become more complex and partisan. But some states, such as Michigan and California, have shifted the task to neutral commissions or professional demographers. In many states, the goal is to become bipartisan, designing districts that are geographically compact, offer competitive contests, and help strengthen community bonds.

That’s particularly difficult in an era when political identities are sharply defined by race, gender, income, or other classifications that tend to divide rather than unite. Yet, ironically, it is the heightened activism among such social groups that has helped bring redistricting out of the shadows and make it more transparent and accountable.

In addition, voters have recently lost one channel for challenging gerrymandered districts: the federal courts. In 2019, the Supreme Court decided that the process of mapping new districts was too inherently political for the justices to intervene in cases of gerrymandering. The Constitution clearly leaves the decision to the states in how to define fairness for electoral boundaries.

The framers of the Constitution knew redistricting would be hard. James Madison warned against “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” He hoped the Constitution would lead to “the cool and deliberate sense of the community” that would produce results that are not “adverse to the rights of other citizens.” Even recently, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned against the rise of “tribal-like loyalties” in American democracy.

Redistricting, like other wheels of government, need not simply be a way to aggregate the preferences of the majority or to balance competing interests. It can also locate the enduring bonds of a community and elevate its identity above personal interests to a greater good.

As new census data often reveals, today’s majority could easily be tomorrow’s minority. Defining political identities is far more than temporary political positions or number crunching every decade. It requires a recognition of every citizen’s inherent worth, which will ensure voting districts can yield the best public wisdom.

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