State Legislatures Are Silencing Native Voices Through Redistricting

Another census is showing an increasing diversity of people heading into an election year. Experts are closely following redistricting and arguing that diversity is not being reflected in the process.

Many examples prove “Republicans could have chosen to compete for the votes of a multiracial America” but instead chose to undermine it, top redistricting expert at NYU Law Michael Li said.

Advocates feel voting rights are under attack on many levels and it’s caught the attention of members of Congress. There’s a strong push by Senate Democrats to update and restore voting rights legislation but they face an uphill battle.

One bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would modernize the Voting Rights Act and extend the preclearance criteria but without the support of centrist Democrats Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin the bills may not make it to the president’s desk.

Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader, proposed several options to pass election reform to overcome the lack of Republican support, including changes to the Senate’s 60 vote requirement to end a filibuster and advance legislation.

Arizona Democrat Sinema says she co-sponsored John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but that she does not support amending it to increase the threshold of 60 votes.

“Arizonans are also familiar with my long stated and firmly held belief that we must support the Senate’s 60 vote thresholds that will protect our country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy,” Sinema told Indian Country Today.

With voting rights protections not guaranteed by congress it’s important to take a close look at which state legislatures and independent redistricting commissions are accused of gerrymandering and diluting Indigenous voting power.

Watch: What is Gerrymandering?

Kansas Legislature Wants Only Native Democrats Out of Congress

At stake in Kansas is the state’s sole Democrat in the U.S. House Republicans there are openly saying that the goal of redistricting is to remove Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, from Congress. She represents Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.

Susan Wagle, Kansas Senate President, said that the state should draw congressional districts to elect four Republicans. A video was posted of Wagle on social media where she said she needs to “give” Davids “some more Republican neighborhoods,” the goal being to guarantee four Republican representatives.

“There are leaders in the Kansas Legislature who have explicitly stated their motivation to gerrymander maps to their party’s political advantage,” Davids said at a news conference last month. “I know people are tired of feeling like billionaires have more of a say than they do in our democracy, tired of having their voices taken away by partisan gerrymandering.”

The Republican legislature controls the process and will not produce a final map for the state’s districts until the last moment possible. The state has a Democrat governor who could veto it, but Republicans have enough votes that they can override a veto.

The ideal population for Davids’ congressional district is roughly 734,500. It currently has 58,000 people, or 8 percent more than the ideal number. The remaining three districts are quite short, with the largest gap in the sprawling 1st District in central and western Kansas.

Democrats fear GOP lawmakers will attempt to divide Wyandotte County’s Democratic stronghold and move a portion of it from the 3rd District to a larger 1st District with overwhelmingly Republican rural regions. The idea was floated by some Republicans in 2012.

There are no maps yet. Kansas’ redistricting deadline is June 1.

Alaska Redistricting Draws Five Lawsuits

In Alaska, five lawsuits have been filed over the Alaska Redistricting Board’s legislative district boundaries issued on Nov. 10. Critics claim that the plans weaken the power of minorities voters.

One suit The board is said to have combined two racially diverse neighborhoods in east Anchorage with the nearby, predominantly Republican town Eagle River. Critics argue that the pairing will decrease the influence of racially diverse neighborhoods while adding a seat to the state Senate for a predominantly White and heavily Republican area.

The decision “opens the board up to an unfortunate and very easily winnable argument to partisan gerrymandering,” said Alaska Redistricting Board member Nicole Borromeo, Athabascan. She’s one of two Alaska Native board members who voted against the pairing.

In western Alaska, a Native corporation and two citizens have filed suit against the board for creating boundaries they argue will undermine the voting strength of its predominantly Yup’ik shareholders. Calista is the Native corporation for this region that was established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

In a statement, Calista Director of Corporate Communications and Shareholder Services Thom Aparuk Leonard said, “Calista Corporation believes voting is one of the most powerful actions available to citizens. As an Alaska Native corporation formed under ANCSA (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act), it is incumbent upon us to assist in protecting the voting rights and powers of our shareholders.”

“The board’s 2021 plan creates house and senate districts that dilute the voting strength of Calista’s Alaska Native shareholders, including by placing them in districts with different social, political, and economic concerns,” the suit alleges.

The suit alleges the board’s plan would violate Constitutional equal protection clauses and the Voting Rights Act by denying or abridging the rights of “citizens of the Calista Region to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group…”

Calista filed the lawsuit Dec. 10, at Bethel’s Superior Court. It is one of five filed over the Alaska redistricting board’s plan. The Alaska Superior Court merged the five suits and assigned a judge to supervise it.

Arizona Redistricting Favors Republicans, More Litigation Likely

Arizona’s final district maps also favor Republicans. The new congressional boundaries Four Republican, two Democratic, three fairly competitive districts to be created

Arizona uses a bipartisan redistricting committee to redraw district maps. The final maps were approved Dec. 22 by the commission.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is composed of five commissioners: two Democrats, two Republicans, and one Independent.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee accused the Independent chair Erika Neuberg of being “independent in name only” and not dutifully serving Arizona voters.

Two Democratic commissioners claim that the new congressional seats will reduce the power of Indigenous voters.

But, this could change in the future. In congressional district 2, non-Native rural population outnumbers tribal nations. This could influence the next election.

But with tribal populations continuing to grow at faster rates than the rural areas surrounding them, it’s likely Native voters could regain control of the district.

It’s likely the new maps will be challenged in court.

Two lawsuits were filed after the commission approved the district maps.

Arizona was a swing-state in the 2020 presidential election cycle. It voted Democratic its first time since 1996. Before that the state hadn’t been blue since 1948.

Splitting Idaho’s Reservation Population Centers

Tribes are saying Idaho’s reapportionment also splits, and dilutes, tribal population numbers. The Coeur d’Alene and Shoshone-Bannock tribes filed a joint challenge to the Idaho Supreme Court on the decision by the Idaho Commission for Reapportionment’s 2021 legislative district boundaries.

A news release issued by the tribes states that the approved map ignores their demands, splits important communities and violates the Idaho Constitution.

That plan would split the Coeur d’Alene Reservation into two legislative districts and the tribal population center would be in a new district which includes parts of five different counties. These counties extend from Priest River, the Washington border in north, to Weippe and the Montana borders in the south and west. It could mean that state representatives could be located more than three hours away from tribal lands, according to the tribe.

“This district does not consider the tribal community, or any community of interest for that matter,” said Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “Our communities all deserve responsive, local representation by citizens who are familiar with the needs of their constituents and who are accessible to their constituents.”

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes says the state’s reapportionment plan would divide the Fort Hall Reservation into three different legislative districts.

The Fort Hall Reservation’s largest population resides near the borders of Bingham and Bannock counties. The 2021 Legislative Map splits the two districts into two.

Chairman Devon Boyer of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes said, “‘this decision ignores the sovereignty of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and also ignores the tribes’ long repeated request to preserve our community of interest by keeping the reservation in substantially one legislative district. Tribes face a complex and controversial issue when it comes to redistricting their state legislative and congressional districts. It is our intent to have equal voice and opportunity to elect representatives who consider and represent our tribal needs and interests,” Boyer said.

Montana Congressional District Competitiveness Questioned

Montana was granted a second congressional district for the first time in over 30 years.

Advocates argue that the new congressional maps were drawn in November to reduce Native voting power. Billings Gazette.

Deputy Director of Western Native Vote Ta’jin Perez says the organization does not plan on suing over the new congressional district maps despite concerns over district competitiveness.

“One of the major points of our advocacy when it relates to the commission’s drawing of our congressional districts was to keep tribal boundaries intact, as much as possible,” Perez said.

Concern was expressed about the congressional boundaries for Blackfeet Nation. In the end, the entire Blackfeet Nation was included within the western district.

Perez said the organization advocated for at least two tribal nations in each of the two districts and they pushed to create competitive districts because “the voice of the tribes within a competitive district actually carry weight.”

“Unfortunately the map that was decided was not as competitive as we would’ve liked to see as far as a breakdown in the preference for one party over another. And so there were other options that included a more competitive Western district,” he said.

The more competitive draft maps were not adopted by the commission and Perez says “as it stands now it is basically more of the status quo.”

The topic of competitiveness was up for discussion, but it is not a federally mandated criterion. The commission chair stated that the definition of competitiveness, which the commission defines was unclear, and he sided with Republicans.

Western Native Vote is suing over legislation which targets absentee and same-day voter registration.

In Oregon “Nearly Impossible” to Elect Representatives for Those Communities

In Oregon, where Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature and hold the Governor’s office, some raised concerns that the district boundaries for state legislative seats were racially gerrymandered and would dilute the voting power of many of the state’s Indigenous voters and tribal nations.

In the end, there were no lawsuits against the districts. Oregon Gov. Late September saw Kate Brown sign off on the boundaries.

One case saw the redrawn boundaries dividing Madras, a Warm Springs Reservation border community where many tribal citizens lived and worked. Madras had previously shared the same house area as the reservation.

Positive trends in voter turnout and engagement among Native voters over the past years have made it more likely that an Indigenous person would be elected, if Madras were kept in the same district with the Warm Springs Reservation, as it was previously, Brian Smith, a consultant political strategist, said. told Indian Country Today and Underscore News.

Tribal advocates who submitted maps and worked to increase engagement in the process claim that the new districts will make a difficult task of electing candidates from those communities, at a time when voter participation efforts were making it possible.

A citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who was planning on running for a legislative seat, had already decided to withdraw her candidacy because she didn’t stand a chance of winning.

“I didn’t expect it to get worse,” Smith, who is also a citizen of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, said, adding that he was perplexed that the maps disadvantaged Indigenous people instead of at least maintaining the status quo. “Now you’re definitely not getting someone elected anytime soon.”

Redistricting Concerns in Other States

The federal government is stepping in over some of the states’ redistricting changes.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced last month that the Justice department had filed suit against Texas over redistricting plans.

He said the new maps in that state violate the Voting Rights Act and urged congress to restore the justice department’s preclearance authority.

The department also filed an statement of interest in Arizona litigation explaining private plaintiffs plausibly alleged the state’s new voting laws were passed with a discriminatory purpose. In Florida litigation, the same statement of interest was filed by the department.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits in redistricting cases in Ohio, South Carolina and Alabama, Arkansas, Arkansas, Georgia, accusing the state legislatures of gerrymandering.

North Carolina Democrats are planning to appeal the state supreme Court’s decision after they have been elected. a judge declined to toss out GOP-drawn maps They claim they are illegal partisan-gerrymanders.

The state Supreme Court in September ordered the state to delay the primaries for two months The litigation over the newly drawn maps was proceeding through a lower court. This year, the state is expected have one of its most competitive senate races.

The Associated PressThis story was contributed by you.