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SPLC project to boost expertise in fighting Deep South racial gerrymandering

With legal challenges to redistricting efforts increasingly hinging on the testimony of expert witnesses, the Southern Poverty Law Center is launching an initiative to train mathematicians and others on the sophisticated statistical and mapping analyses essential to protecting the rights of voters to have fair representation.

The Race and Redistricting Expert Project, slated to hold its first instructional session at SPLC headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama, in July, is taking on a significant obstacle to legal cases against gerrymandering – the dearth of experts with the tools necessary to assist in challenging the practice. There are not enough experts to address the increasing, deliberate manipulation of voting district boundaries to achieve a political end.

Application: Join the Race and Redistricting Expert Project

Every 10 years, following the U.S. census, states and municipalities must redraw voting districts to reflect population changes. But too often, advocates say, elected officials manipulate the process to draw district maps that favor political partisanship over fair representation.

An initial cohort of 10-15 fellows, likely professors or graduate students in mathematics, geography, geographic information systems, urban planning and statistics, will receive training on the methods involved in analyzing redistricting plans and other sophisticated, data-driven techniques to study how political districts are drawn, how they are manipulated, and how to use such techniques to determine when a map’s racial and partisan bias renders it unconstitutional.

The need for data-driven expertise has become increasingly critical as technology has advanced in the world of politics. On the one hand, advanced computer programs make it easier for partisan legislatures to maximize their own party’s seat share with more precision. On the other, as the methods of analyzing political maps have evolved into a field supported by a wide range of research, voting rights advocates are increasingly employing data-driven techniques to prove in court when a district has been drawn to diminish the political power of people of color and others long underrepresented in political bodies.

“The time for this is now,” said Fred McBride, senior adviser to the Democracy: Voting Rights litigation team at the SPLC and a nationally respected expert on the use of many of the new analytical techniques. “For years, the SPLC and other organizations that address racism, discrimination and voting rights have been on the defensive, as state legislatures challenge minority voting rights with heavy-handed redistricting. This project places us on the offensive.”

Playing offense

Playing offense on voting rights has perhaps never been more essential. Until 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted essential protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its Shelby County v. Holder decision, states and jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination or disparities were required to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia before making changes to their voting laws. 

The Supreme Court decision erased that requirement, known as “preclearance,” and partisan state legislatures exploited the weakened regulations to pass a wave of discriminatory voting and redistricting laws. The decision left intact Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race. But challenging discriminatory voting laws under the act without the benefit of preclearance has proven difficult. Section 2 lawsuits must be brought on a case-by-case basis, putting the burden on voting rights advocates to challenge voting discrimination, often after the laws and procedures have been enacted.

Even as the number of cases has grown, the number of experts with the skills to be called on for data-intensive expert work on redistricting plans has dwindled. For years, voting rights organizations relied on a limited number of experts. As they have begun to retire, there is a need for a new generation of experts to bolster the legal challenges. And not only do the experts need to be more numerous, they need to be adept in analytical techniques that are constantly changing with the introduction of new technologies.

No time to lose

Moon Duchin is a professor of mathematics at Tufts University and the founder of the MGGG Redistricting Lab, based at the university’s Tisch College of Civic Life. She is helping the SPLC stand up its new initiative to address gerrymandering issues in the Deep South states where the organization concentrates the bulk of its work.

“In today’s environment, we see several Southern legislatures pushing the envelope in minimizing the voting influence of people of color,” Duchin said. “I’ve seen up close that some states are trying legally more and more ambitious strategies to argue that they have license for partisan gerrymanders, coupled with a growing strategy to conflate race and party and argue that what looks like racially motivated vote dilution is actually just permissible partisan gerrymandering. 

“This has created an urgent need for new quantitatively sophisticated strategies and new experts for protecting voting rights,” she said.

The SPLC is losing no time in responding to that need. For years, it has helped teach communities how to analyze voting maps, and it employs its own experts in researching, surveying and understanding the communities it serves. But when SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang became aware about two years ago of the urgent need for more expert witnesses to bolster its Voting Rights Act legal cases, she began planting the seeds for the new initiative.

“Over the years, it has become clear that the field of experts who understand the complexities of redistricting and who share our commitment to protecting voting rights for communities of color includes far too few folks,” Huang said. “It’s time to build up a new generation of leaders who will help to ensure that fair representation of all communities is central to an effective democracy.”

‘Concerned about our democracy’

In choosing participants for the first cohort, scheduled to stretch over two years, McBride hopes to engage individuals from all walks of life. Training will include a weeklong, in-person session led by the SPLC’s Democracy: Voting Rights litigation team and other experts.

Participants will receive an assignment that they will work on throughout the year and later discuss virtually with the SPLC’s voting rights team and other experts. In the second year of training, participants will receive a second assignment and be paired with different organizations, current experts, or state and local groups to help them work on redistricting matters in their communities and states.

“We want to plant this in people’s minds, that when you think about voting, don’t just think about getting out the vote,” McBride said. “Also think about whether the boundaries of your voting districts are drawn fairly. These boundaries affect your ability to elect people who represent you, from school board members determining curricula, to state and federal representatives deciding health care policies. We urge all that are interested in fair elections to take this on. We need both potential experts and partners in this. We’re concerned about our democracy.”

Photo at top: Georgia state Sen. Bo Hatchett speaks about redistricting bill HB 1EX during a special legislative session at the Capitol in Atlanta on Dec. 5, 2023. (Credit: Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)