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.