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Political line-drawers in over 20 states are supposed to shape legislative and congressional districts in a way that keeps communities together.
But what’s a community?
In Colorado, the redistricting commission has been asked not to lump rich and poor together. Mississippi‘s only majority-Black congressional district wants to stay that way. And in the foothills of Los Angeles, neighborhoods prone to wandering bears have suggested consolidation with a national forest.
Definitions will become destiny in a process that decides whether representatives can be hyper-focused on a few local issues or if they’ll be expected to champion a wide range of constituent interests.
“When you’re drawn in half, yeah, you ‘have two members of Congress,’ but neither of them view you as their sole responsibility,” said Paul Mitchell, owner of the Sacramento, Calif.-based consulting firm Redistricting Partners.
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Traditionally, communities of interest are defined as areas where common political interests don’t necessarily coincide with the boundaries of a political subdivision, such as a city or county.
At least a half-dozen states allow the public to draw their own communities of interest with online mapping tools. One person used colored pencils to fill in a congressional district map proposal in Colorado.
Whatever method people use, their proposals are meant to be taken seriously.
“Maintaining communities of interest intact in redistricting maps should be second only to compliance with the United States Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act as a consideration in redistricting,” according to redistricting principles outlined by the watchdog group Common Cause.
Whether voters want to live in a red or blue district, or in a district defined by a specific economic, environmental, or social concern largely depends on what their state has done to cultivate the consideration of communities of interest, said Robynn Kuhlmann, who teaches political science at the University of Central Missouri.
“States like California or other states that have political cultures where citizens are a lot more active in politics, you’re going to see different dynamics,” Kuhlmann said.
Twenty-one states require preserving communities of interest for congressional districts, and 25 do so for state legislative districts, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In some cases, “communities of interest” are defined as who doesn’t want to be linked together.
In Arizona, some Mohave County residents testified in public hearings that they no longer want to share a congressional district with suburban Phoenix communities in Maricopa County because they have little in common.
In Colorado, transportation and affordable housing concerns led some Jefferson County residents to suggest that they be separated from wealthier suburbs in Douglas County. Likewise, rural counties asked mappers to leave cities such as Boulder, Colo., out of their districts. The redistricting commission’s latest proposal would put the bulk of Douglas and Jefferson counties into different congressional districts, while including Boulder in an expansive district with a Hispanic population of nearly 28%.
See also: Latest Map Would Put Boebert in Neguse’s District (AP)
A mix of geography and economics binds some areas that want to create new districts.
In Oregon, which is adding a sixth congressional seat, one district hugging the state’s entire Pacific Coast has been floated. A coastal district in California stretching from Berkeley north to the state line also has been suggested by members of the public.
As California prepares to lose a seat, Napa Valley vintners have asked for the wine country to be kept within a single congressional district, and the descendants of Asian immigrants have asked to maximize their voting strength by keeping intact “Little Saigon” in Orange County, Filipinos in the San Diego area, and Indian tech workers in Silicon Valley.
Tribal communities are having similar conversations about preserving their distinct concerns in the map-drawing process, after new U.S. Census data showed an 85.2% bump in the number of people identifying as American Indian or Native Alaskan.
“A lot of what we’re seeing right now is very localized,” Mitchell said. “It’s not big statewide plays happening yet.”
Environmental and development concerns could shape a community of interest in the foothills of Los Angeles.
Neighborhoods bordering the Angeles National Forest have been pinging the California Citizens Redistricting Commission on social media with reports about bears lumbering through their streets and yards. In light-hearted posts, they argue to be consolidated with the forest, instead of being split into more urban districts.
“The whole point is, this community of interest in the foothills has this connection to the environmental impacts of the growth of housing, it has interest as to the well-being of the forest,” Mitchell said.
In Mississippi, a state where the population is over 36% Black, according to the latest Census data, the lawmakers who’ll redo the district lines have a significant decision to make about the only majority-Black district, which is represented by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D).
The lines are bound to change to account for the population lost in the Mississippi Delta, and it matters whether the boundaries are shifted north or south, said Matthew Campbell, community organizer for the Mississippi State Conference NAACP.
If stretched south, it could encompass majority-Black Adams County. But if the lines are redrawn to the north, those counties just south of Memphis, Tenn., have more affluent white voters who tend to vote at a higher rate.
“It’s important for them not to engage in any type of weird, bizarre, funny business, where they’re drawing this district’s lines in some crazy way that doesn’t really comply with the Voting Rights Act, but that it remains compact and any change still represents the fact that this is a majority-minority district,” Campbell said.
Thompson asked state lawmakers not to split up communities at a public hearing in Itta Bena, Miss. “Can we make adjustments on the congressional side with as minimal amount of statistical upheaval as we possibly can? I personally think you can,” Thompson said.
‘We Belong Together’
A community of interest doesn’t have to stand alone as a solo district, but it’s important that state governments know it’s there, said Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs for the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
The group’s “We Belong Together” effort wants redistricting authorities, particularly in states with independent map-drawing commissions, to consider lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender populations as “communities of interest.”
“There’s definitely a concentration of people in Phoenix, it’s just not enough to, you know, be its own congressional seat. But it can certainly be maintained together within a respective congressional seat that might be a Latino propensity seat,” Meloy said. “Our community’s diverse and made up of every other community, and so, a Latino district with an LGBTQ neighborhood maintained could still help.”
The 2020 Census was the first to ask about same-sex marriages, and that’s just one example of how these communities are underrepresented not only in government but also in the data the government collects and uses to shape policy, Meloy said.
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Caught Our Eye
- BGOV Q&A: Redistricting Now That Preclearance Is (Mostly) Gone
- BLAW Podcast: On The Merits examines the prosecution of voting fraud
- REDISTRICTING TRACKER: fivethirtyeight.com
- PRINCETON GERRYMANDERING PROJECT
- ELECTION LITIGATION TRACKER: Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law
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With assistance from Tripp Baltz
To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Kay in Miami at firstname.lastname@example.org