New U.S. Census figures lead to redistricting for state, local and national representatives, and pending redistricting efforts have also brought about some criticism and controversy.
At a recent online meeting of the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge, Jesse Fox Mayshark, a reporter with Compass in Knoxville, talked about the different ways redistricting is likely to be done in Tennessee and what he considered its likely impacts. Compass is described on its website as a subscription-only website and newsletter that “provides news, insights and analysis of Knoxville and Knox County government, politics and business.”
“Redistricting is a pretty fascinating topic, and it’s been interesting to watch both at the state and national level in the past few months,” he said, adding that redistricting maps for the U.S. Congress and Tennessee Legislature were sent to the legislators for “what will probably be a speedy adoption” by the end of January.
Since Mayshark’s talk, in a 26-5 party-line vote on Thursday, Senate Republicans approved new boundaries for the state’s nine U.S. House of Representatives and 33 Tennessee Senate districts. The chamber delayed voting on a new Tennessee House of Representatives map until Wednesday, Jan. 26.
The House is expected to vote on all three new maps on Monday.
After the vote, Democrats hinted at a potential legal battle over the redistricting plan.
During the online League luncheon meeting, Mayshark criticized several aspects of the state and national redistricting plans for favoring the Republican majority in the legislature who are making them instead of giving a fair representation in Congress and the state General Assembly for the number of people who vote Democrat in Tennessee. However, he said that it might be difficult to challenge any of these plans legally. Mayshark previously served as communications director for former Knoxville mayor Madeline Rogero, a Democrat.
He said in the last election, 37% of Tennessee voters, or over one-third, voted for President Joe Biden, a Democrat. However, he said that Democrats do not under the current system or under the new system have the same level of representation.
He added Republicans justify these decisions by saying that Democrats also drew up districts to benefit themselves when they were in the majority in Tennessee, which he said is true.
The process in Tennessee
Mayshark laid out what he considered his ideal process for how redistricting should work.
He said every elected person should represent “more or less the same number of people.”
He said the process should be a non-partisan one or the “next best thing,” a bipartisan process. Nevertheless, he said a majority of states conduct “what are essentially partisan redistricting processes.”
He also said public input should be “substantiative and should actually have the opportunity to make a difference in the outcome.” Maps produced by this process should be “as contiguous and coherent as possible.”
Still, he said many districts don’t look contiguous at all, including congressional districts that are “long, squiggly things.”
In Tennessee this year, Mayshark said, there were improvements over how the process had been done in the past, although he criticized the results and several aspects of the process.
The state House and state Senate, he said, both created redistricting committees. This time the committees were bipartisan, although they were not last time.
He said the public did get a chance to draw up maps and submit them. Nevertheless, he said there was “no evidence” that they were considered.
“They just kind of sat there,” he said of these suggestions.
2020 Census information, Mayshark said, came in later than usual.
“Everything had to happen pretty quickly in the fall,” he said.
“There was more transparency than there was last time around,” he added. However, he said the proposals from the Republicans were not presented publicly “until the last minute.” The Republicans are the majority party in the state General Assembly.
“We’re almost to the end of this process,” he said. “If it was an ‘F’ or a ‘D’ last time, maybe it’s a ‘C-minus’ this time,” he said regarding how he would grade the process.
Gerrymandering and what’s legal
Gerrymandering is named somewhat unfairly after 19th century Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, Mayshark said. He said gerrymandering has been a common practice since the country’s founding and “decried every 10 years since then.”
Gerrymandering refers to the drawing of districts for political gain. The U.S. Supreme Court allows gerrymandering for political reasons. However, Mayshark explained the Supreme Court has said it’s not allowed for “blatant racial discrimination.” If maps divide up communities of color to minimize the impact of people of color, the redistricting can be overturned, he said.
Mayshark joined others in criticizing Davidson County, which includes Nashville, being split into three different U.S. congressional districts, each of which, he said, would have a “pretty strong Republican leaning.”
Currently, the 5th Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, includes the entire county.
State Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and a former Oak Ridge resident, has responded to criticism from people like Mayshark. He denied the proposed map is gerrymandering, despite what The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville called the “snaking lines divvying up Davidson County.” The map preserves the 9th Congressional District, centered in Shelby County. It would remain a majority-minority district and satisfies the Voting Rights Act, Sexton said, and is constitutional.
“Davidson will gain more representation. It never hurts to have more people in Washington fighting for you,” Sexton said, as reported by The Tennessean. “Actually, I think it helps Davidson County to be a party at the table when they’re trying to get things out of D.C.”
Mayshark criticized the proposed Nashville area Congressional districts for favoring the Republican Party. He said Democrats may challenge the proposal for racial gerrymandering, but he said that lawsuit will probably fail.
Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, has said the maps potentially dilute the voting power of minority populations in the state and unnecessarily split up counties.
“It’s hard to imagine you don’t see this in litigation at some point,” Yarbro said. “I can’t imagine people don’t look at this and say there are legal deficiencies.
Nevertheless, Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, defended the maps as “fair and legal.” He cited previous maps which split Shelby County into multiple congressional districts.
“We feel like the maps are legal and defensible both from a statutory and constitutional standpoint,” Johnson said.
Knoxville and Knox County
Mayshark also talked about Knox County in which he lives.
He said the new redistricting there for the Tennessee Senate is “a little funky,” but “not that big of a change.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s district will move further into Knox County, he said, due to Anderson and Loudon counties not having enough of a population. Mayshark said that he will, under the proposal, be represented by McNally, who lives in Oak Ridge.
Mayshark had more criticism for the state House’s redistricting’s effects on Democrats, specifically its impact on Democratic incumbents. The proposal would place Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, in the same district if approved.
Mayshark said similar issues are happening with Democrat incumbents in Nashville and Memphis.
In spite of speaking to a largely Anderson County audience, Mayshark had relatively few things to say about Anderson County and the immediate Oak Ridge area. He did criticize both the current and future plan of putting Oak Ridge together with Chattanooga for its U.S. House of Representatives district. Both Chattanooga and Oak Ridge are in the Third District, which is now represented by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican.
Anderson County Commissioner Joshua Anderson of Clinton, has criticized the state House proposal for how it has drawn districts combining part of Anderson County with a district that includes either pieces of, or the entirety of, Morgan, Fentress, Campbell and Overton counties.
On his Facebook page, he posted: “This is absolutely insane. The entire northern end of Anderson County, from Rosedale to Norris Lake, has been moved into a state House district primarily composed of Morgan County, with a representative who lives all the way in Overton County. How is that keeping the districts compact and respecting geographical boundaries? County Commission was able to follow the rules for local redistricting. Why can’t Nashville?”
Anderson said in response to others’ comments that he does not view it as a partisan issue.
“I’ve heard from numerous Democrats who would be more than happy to be in Rep. John Ragan’s district because it makes more geographical sense. Gerrymandering is wrong whether a Republican, Democrat, Dixiecrat, Whig, Federalist, Tory, or whoever does it,” he stated.
Ben Pounds is a staff reporter for The Oak Ridger. Call him at (865) 441-2317, follow him on Twitter @Bpoundsjournal and email him at [email protected]. Melissa Brown, Adam Friedman and Samuel Hardiman of The Tennessean paper in Nashville contributed to this story.