Keep an Eye on the Lines

New redistricting maps could mean fewer lawmakers who look like you.

Posted: 03/21/2011 06:27 PM EDT

States are just starting to redraw legislative district lines that will determine who could be in or out of public office at all levels of government, but the battles are already brewing.

Redistricting is done after each census and the lines are based on new population figures. Voting rights advocates fear that left unchecked, states may try to concentrate minorities in fewer districts, a tactic known as “packing,” which would neutralize their voting power. Or, they could try to “crack” them by spreading out minority voters into different districts. Based on an amendment to the Voting Rights Act, if a sufficient number of minority voters exist, they cannot be broken up and distributed in such a way that would prevent them from electing the candidate of their choice.

Mississippi is one state senators and representatives are engaged in a fight over proposed new lines, which African-American senators have complained don’t reflect the state’s diversity. African Americans comprise 37% of its population. The Mississippi NAACP joined the fight last week, filing a federal lawsuit seeking to have the map declared unconstitutional.

With so many state legislatures now under Republican control, civil rights organizations are keeping a close watch to ensure that African Americans and other minorities will have fair representation. The U.S. Department of Justice will have to review each state’s map to make sure they don’t dilute minority voting strength.

Voting rights is a particularly sensitive issue in the South, but African Americans around the nation are urged to pay attention because the new maps will not only determine who will represent them but also could impact critical policy issues such as education, housing and health care.