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Protesters attend a rally for "Fair Maps" on March 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty Images)

'Time Is Really Running Out': Democrats Urged to Counteract GOP's Gerrymandering Spree

Progressives are imploring congressional Democrats to end the filibuster and pass federal legislation to reverse state-level Republicans' gerrymandered maps and voter suppression laws.

Kenny Stancil

As redistricting kicks into full gear and GOP-controlled states follow Texas' anti-democratic playbook this week by advancing congressional and state legislative maps that would disenfranchise communities of color and cement Republican power for at least a decade, voting rights advocates are once again urging Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill to swiftly pass federal legislation to reverse partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression laws.

"Democrats... could soon be powerless to stop the GOP's takeover of the U.S. House and state Capitols for the next decade."

"Time is really running out for [Democrats] to pass voting rights legislation to reverse extreme gerrymandering," journalist and author Ari Berman said Wednesday.

Berman was reacting to a proposed congressional map unveiled Wednesday morning by Ohio House Republicans that "could give the GOP a 13-2 advantage among representatives to the U.S. House despite voter-approved changes to prevent gerrymandering," as Jessie Balmert of The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Although former President Donald Trump won Ohio with just over half of the vote in the 2020 election, 86% of the state's 15 U.S. House seats could soon be occupied by Republicans thanks to partisan gerrymandering.

According to Balmert, Ohio House Democrats didn't see a copy of their GOP colleagues' proposed map until 10:42 a.m., just 18 minutes before the committee meeting started, prompting Michael Li, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, to say, "This is not how redistricting is supposed to work."

Other critics say that Ohio's entire redistricting process—not only the House GOP's failure to give Democrats in the chamber ample review time—has been marred by a lack of fairness and transparency.

After the Ohio House Government Oversight Committee and the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee announced that they will hold hearings Thursday on bills that are simply placeholders and do not present actual maps—scheduling the two public meetings within half an hour of one another—advocates demanded that the Ohio General Assembly provide citizens with meaningful opportunities to participate.

"The congressional maps that state lawmakers draw will impact Ohioans' voting power for the next decade," Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said Wednesday in a statement. "The public deserves to have a seat at the table."

"Despite voters' repeated pleas and public demonstrations for more opportunities to participate, state leaders have intentionally made it difficult for even the most informed voters to weigh in," Turcer continued. "Field hearings were focused only on state legislative mapmaking. The state Legislature held no public hearings in September and the Ohio Redistricting Commission convened only once."

As The Hill reported on Monday:

A new bipartisan commission tasked with redrawing Ohio's political boundaries every decade surrendered its authority to draw congressional districts without even considering a proposal, punting the decision to a state legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans.

The commission, created three years ago with the support of more than 70% of Ohio voters, held just one meeting to consider congressional district boundaries.

"The congressional redistricting process is really just getting started," Turcer added. "It is time for the state Legislature to make a dramatic change by publicizing a plan for public hearings for the month of November. Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved the new rules for congressional mapmaking and we expect a much more transparent and participatory process."

Ohio is far from alone. On Monday, the Republican-led redistricting committee in the North Carolina Senate greenlit its proposed congressional map, and state senators voted along party lines to approve it the next day.

Princeton University's Gerrymandering Project gave North Carolina's proposed congressional map an "F" grade, due to the fact that it produces a "significant Republican advantage." As Berman noted, the map could result in the GOP taking roughly three-quarters of the state's 14 U.S. House seats even though Trump won the state with less than half of the vote last year.

The News & Observer reported Wednesday that "if all goes according to the plan lawmakers set in motion earlier this week, the maps could be official as soon as Thursday. If they become law as expected, they will be used in every election from 2022 through 2030—unless a lawsuit succeeds in forcing them to be redrawn, as has happened numerous times in North Carolina dating back to the 1980s."

While the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 ruled 5-3 that the maps drawn by North Carolina Republicans in 2011 misused racial data and amounted to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in two congressional districts, the right-wing justices just two years later condoned partisan gerrymandering, arguing that the practice is beyond the high court's purview.

"President Biden has said that we're facing the 'most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.' It's time to act like it."

Given that Black U.S. voters overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, it can be difficult to disentangle racial gerrymandering from partisan gerrymandering, which is why progressives warned that the Supreme Court's refusal to outlaw the latter could effectively legalize the former.

Republican mapmakers, meanwhile, have been perfecting techniques to secure political advantages without running afoul of the 14th Amendment's "one person, one vote" protections and other anti-discrimination laws.

While a North Carolina state court in 2019 invalidated GOP-drawn congressional districts before the 2020 election—ruling that the map violated the state constitution—the Supreme Court's decision just months earlier put the onus on members of Congress to take action to prevent gerrymandering.

For months, progressives have been clamoring for congressional Democrats to repeal the Senate's 60-vote filibuster rule and pass pro-democracy reforms.

Before Texas' GOP-controlled Legislature approved its heavily gerrymandered maps last month, Berman warned that the Lone Star State's plan represented "an ominous sign of things to come in other Southern battleground states."

"Republicans need just five seats to take back the House," he added, "and could accomplish this through gerrymandering in Texas, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina."

In early August, before the U.S. Census Bureau released the latest decennial data used by state governments for redistricting, progressives—already dismayed by the right-wing assault on ballot access—sounded the alarm about the impending gerrymandering bonanza and urged congressional Democrats to prevent Republicans from carrying out an anti-democratic power grab that would have long-lasting consequences for human rights and the climate crisis.

Senate Democrats failed to abolish the filibuster and join their House counterparts in passing the For the People Act—a popular and far-reaching bill that would require independent redistricting commissions and also includes anti-corruption provisions as well as measures to neutralize the GOP's nationwide flurry of voter suppression laws and bills—prior to that mid-August deadline.

Although Democratic lawmakers did introduce the Freedom to Vote Act, a compromise bill endorsed by conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), in September, Senate Republicans obstructed the legislation last month, intensifying long-standing calls to end the filibuster.

And on Wednesday, all but one Republican senator blocked debate on the recently reintroduced John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, filibustering the third piece of pro-democracy legislation this year.

Just hours before that happened, Stand Up America founder and president Sean Eldridge was arrested alongside members of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family and other activists who engaged in civil disobedience outside the White House to demand that President Joe Biden publicly call on Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster and pass federal voting rights legislation.

"It is an honor to stand in solidarity with the King family and all of the civil rights leaders who put their bodies on the line today to demand action to protect the precious right to vote," Eldridge said in a statement.

"President Biden has said that we're facing the 'most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War,'" Eldridge continued. "It's time to act like it. We don't need more handwringing, more delays, or more excuses. We need action on voting rights now."

"It's time for President Biden to loudly call on the Senate to end the Jim Crow filibuster and protect the freedom to vote," he added.

Last month, Li said that if Senate Democrats reform or scrap the filibuster and pass the Freedom to Vote Act, racial and partisan gerrymandering of the sort being pushed by right-wing lawmakers in multiple states would be outlawed.

With Republican lawmakers' proposed redistricting maps set to become law in just a matter of days or weeks, Berman stressed last month, "Democrats are running out of time to pass it or devise a strategy for overcoming a GOP filibuster—and could soon be powerless to stop the GOP's takeover of the U.S. House and state Capitols for the next decade."

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