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The Census Bureau released a huge trove of data on Thursday that will guide the redrawing of district lines for Congress, state legislatures and local offices, opening a rushed and politically volatile edition of the decennial redistricting process.
All eyes are on how severely state legislators will gerrymander their maps for partisan gain, and for good reason. With Republicans at an advantage in legislatures — including in states like Texas and Florida that are gaining seats in Congress — redistricting could flip control of the House in 2022 without a single voter switching sides. Gerrymandered maps could also entrench Republican power in statehouses and stifle the influence of Black and Latino voters at local, state and federal levels alike, and advocates for Black and Latino voters will be pushing back forcefully.
But there will be other forces at play, too: marginalized groups like Asian Americans, Native Americans and L.G.B.T.Q. Americans that received comparatively little attention in past redistricting cycles but are now mobilizing to try to keep their communities intact, and influential, within newly drawn districts.
“Most people don’t totally appreciate how much redistricting predetermines the results in most elections,” said Neil Makhija, the executive director of the advocacy group Indian American Impact, referring not only to gerrymandering but to the fact that people with common backgrounds and views tend to cluster geographically, which means even neutral mapping decisions produce a lot of noncompetitive districts.
Based on data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Asian Americans — who helped fuel the country’s growth in the past decade, according to the census — are one of the most underrepresented groups in state politics, with a share of state legislative seats less than one-fourth their share of the U.S. population.
The Impact group plans to use the new census data to identify where Indian Americans are clustered and to lobby state legislatures and redistricting commissions to treat them as “communities of interest,” a technical term that refers to communities with shared needs and policy interests — whether cultural, historical or economic — that make it important for them to collectively choose their representatives.
Redistricting authorities are supposed to work to keep communities of interest intact. In some circumstances, splitting them can be a basis for legal challenges, and organizations representing a wide array of demographic groups — including Impact, the Native American Rights Fund and others — say they are prepared to file such challenges against maps they believe are discriminatory.
But keeping a community intact depends, before politics ever come into play, on defining its boundaries, and that isn’t always simple.
“Tribes are communities of interest that should be kept together in most instances,” said Matthew Campbell, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, but “we can get caught in thinking about the reservation, on versus off reservation. There may be communities that are off reservation but just near the reservation that really should be tied together with the rest of the community. Some cities or towns may be close to reservation boundaries, and they should be included as well.”
NARF is working with organizers statewide in Alaska, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota, and at the local level in parts of Michigan, Minnesota, Utah and Wisconsin, on a new project called Fair Districting in Indian Country. They will use mapping software to define communities down to the street level, helping them suggest to redistricting officials where to draw lines.
As early as June, the advocacy group Western Native Voice was telling its organizers in Montana — which is getting a second House seat as a result of population growth — to use that software and send data about their communities to NARF. In a three-day training in the southern Montana city of Bozeman that month, W.N.V. leaders emphasized that communities of interest could be defined not only by race and ethnicity but also by something as specific as a shared water source threatened by pollution.
Now that the census data is out, the first order of business is “explaining it to the organizers and the field team, because it’s going to come likely in a somewhat messy format to the general public,” Keaton Sunchild, the political director at Western Native Voice, said in an interview on Thursday morning. “We’ll explain what it means to them, and then we’re going to go use that data to form our message” for a state redistricting commission hearing in October.
Before that hearing, Mr. Sunchild said, Western Native Voice organizers will talk to tribal leaders about their priorities. For example, he said, the Crow Tribe and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in southern Montana share a state legislative district and don’t want to be separated in redistricting.
Beyond mapping, advocates who want redistricting officials to treat specific groups as communities of interest need to show that those groups are cohesive, meaning they have shared interests that justify keeping them together.
Mr. Makhija cited a study that Indian American Impact did in Georgia, which found that large majorities of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — and even larger majorities of Indian Americans — voted Democratic in the presidential election and the Senate runoffs. He said the group planned to do similar research in other states and would focus its efforts on California, Georgia, New York and Texas.
The L.G.B.T.Q. Victory Fund is also planning to push redistricting officials in states with independent commissions to treat L.G.B.T.Q. people as communities of interest, as my colleague Aishvarya Kavi reported on Wednesday. The Victory Fund cites as a success story the creation of a San Diego City Council district centered on the Hillcrest neighborhood; that district elected San Diego’s first openly gay official in the 1990s and has been represented by a member of the L.G.B.T.Q. community ever since.
Mr. Makhija pointed to New York’s Sixth Congressional District, in Queens, as a success story for Asian Americans: They are a plurality of voters in the district and helped elect Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat who is the first Asian American to serve in Congress from New York. She has worked to elevate issues like a huge backlog of green card applications, which is one of Impact’s biggest policy concerns.
But “until you get a critical mass of elected leaders,” Mr. Makhija said, “the public doesn’t even know what those issues are.”
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