Waking Up to a More Complex Reality About Redistricting

Last week Aaron Blake & Chris Cillizza had a good piece about The GOP’s Census Problem that could be an article in a bigger series about “The GOP’s Minority Problem.” The quick take-away is that the census is showing that most of the population growth since 2000 has been among minorities (who vote overwhelmingly Democratic), that the regions that are growing are large metropolitan areas (which vote Democratic) and the states that are growing the fastest include those, like Nevada & Virginia, that have been shifting most steadily from Republican to Democratic.

Things are a bit more complicated, of course. Greg Giroux points out that the 13 most populous congressional districts, and 81 of the 100 most populous congressional districts are held by Republicans. Conversely, 68 of the least populous districts are held by Democrats. So, it’s possible that this is bad news for Democrats. But I’m inclined to think this will help Democrats, for a reason not mentioned by Blake and Cillizza: increasing racial integration in many metropolitan areas means Democratic votes are becoming more efficiently distributed.

In the last two rounds of redistricting Democrats have had two related problems that aren’t specific to which party controls the process. First, the Voting Rights Act has led to several majority-minority districts. With only a handful of exceptions, these districts are mostly African-American and generally 65% or higher Democratic performing. It’s simple to explain why: when more than half the population is African-American, and with 90% or more of African-Americans voting Democratic, even though white voters turn out at a higher rate than black voters, Republicans would still have to get 80% or more of the white vote to make the district competitive. But even in the most Republican and entirely white places in America–the central Plains, the heavily Mormon areas of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, a few scattered places in the Deep South–Democratic candidates who are nothing more than a name on the ballot still usually manage to pull over 25% of the vote.

The second problem is related to the first: even if an area doesn’t have a large enough minority population to make a minority-majority district, Democrats have been more likely to cluster together in areas that are 65% or more Democratic-performing. This includes neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly minority, but it also includes places like college towns, hipster neighborhoods, areas that are heavily Jewish, LGBT enclaves and the like. These kinds of neighborhoods are often within a short distance of heavily African-American or Latino areas, so even when Democrats want to spread out their base to boost the Democratic performance in potentially competitive areas, it’s often too difficult to pull off.

The results of the census shouldn’t lead anyone to the sanguine conclusion that America is no longer a largely segregated society. Few places in America that at one point were overwhelmingly African-American or Latino have over the years become integrated enough that the African-American or Latino population share shrunk to a plurality, or even rarer, that the white population became a plurality. Gentrification gets some attention, but the reality is that it’s only happening in a handful of places in America, almost entirely in the very expensive metro areas like NYC and Washington DC.

What IS happening, though, is that many neighborhoods dominated by minorities or recent immigrants–another group mostly voting for Democrats, at least since the 2001 freakout against people who looked or sounded different than most white Americans, combined with Republican pandering to the nativism rampant in their base–those neighborhoods are emptying out. There was a lot of talk last week when the census figures for Michigan were released, showing Detroit losing 25% of it’s population. Detroit’s the most extreme case, but many other large & mid-sized cities are hemorrhaging population, and most that are growing–like Charlotte or San Jose–are more suburban, with less population density.

Cities are emptying out, minorities are leaving, but where are they going? Some of the African-American migration from northern cities is to the south. But much of it is within the same metropolitan areas, from the central city to the suburbs. In Detroit, for instance, in 2000(pdf) the African American population was clustered almost entirely in Detroit, adjacent Southfield, and a few other enclaves like Pontiac. Almost every census tract in the metro Detroit area was 85% or more white or 85% or more black and plenty of areas had black populations under 2%. But by 2010(pdf), not only was there Latino population growth almost everywhere, there were few areas in the region where the black population wasn’t at least 5%, and vast stretches of the once-lily white suburbs are now 5-20% black.

Since the late 1980’s, when Detroit became over 80% black, Detroit has reliably cast over 90% of its votes for Democrats. As the city’s population has shrunk the number of Democratic votes coming out of Detroit has obviously shrunk as well. But black voters continue to vote Democratic over 90% of the time, and the black voters who leave Detroit for the suburbs have increased the Democratic performance of their new communities.

No longer will it be easy for Republicans in an even or slightly Democratic-leaning state like Michigan to concentrate a huge share of the Democrats in a small number of 65% or higher Democratic performing districts and then assemble a larger number of districts that give Republicans 55% or so. If the racial integration happening around Detroit has also happened in states like Florida and Ohio, where, like Michigan, the Republican share of Congressional seats is far higher than the Republican share of the statewide vote, the much ballyhooed Republican redistricting advantage may prove far less robust than the many of the DC pundits expected.

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3 Responses to Waking Up to a More Complex Reality About Redistricting

  1. Pobre says:

    The de-population of traditional urban neighborhoods creates all types of problems for lawmakers drawing boundaries. Lawmakers make efforts to keep communities of interest in place. In the urban core, with distinct neighborhoods, this is relatively easy. But, in growth suburbs, it’s incredibly complicated. Non-descript boom towns don’t have well-defined enclaves. Even municipal boundaries don’t mean much … in suburban Johnson County KS you’ll find people who legitimately don’t know their municipality because it’s not always consistent with mailing address, and bizarre annexation patterns leave certain subdivisions “in the county” w/o an actual municipal overlay. In these areas, the school district boundaries probably define the best communities of interest. But, a school district might contain a dozen legislative districts. Redistricting litigation in the past has tried to define communities of interest matching commercial corridors to matching residential subdivisions. But, this doesn’t make sense b/c residents don’t relate to their neighborhood strip mall in the same manner that a small town relates to its main street. It’s hard to imagine the courts defining “community” based on proximity to fast food or big box. Because the suburbs don’t leave much community of interest to work with, they’re wide open to political gerrymandering. The conservatives clearly recognize the residential patterns of church-goers. Mega-churches literally attract a certain type of resident to the neighborhood. I guess that the same thing could be said for a mosque or temple. I agree that demographic shifts of minorities to suburbs will help the D’s in the long-term. But, in the meantime, redistricting is going to benefit the mapmakers. Another loosely-related issue to suburban population shifts is that these new districts always seem to elect a different type of legislator (whether R or D, liberal or conservative). Legislative districts based on traditional neighborhoods necessitate a communitarian. There’s an identity amongst the constituency that demands loyalty. Suburban districts lack this identity … there’s really no community to represent. A state rep from “Little Italy” is going to be very different type of legislator than somebody who has grouping of subdivisions unified only be arterial roads (if that). Suburban lawmakers don’t have community commitments, so they tend to veer off into ideological politics (right or left). The decline of inner city populations (just like the decline of rural and small towns) is bad for our republican (lower-case r) system.

  2. Dana Houle says:

    I agree with almost all of that, but I’d qualify the part about suburbs and communities of interest. It’s true that in KS the suburbs have very loose community bonds, and definitely not much in the way of ethnic/cultural bonds. But in many places you actually do have large and/or vibrant and cohesive communities of immigrants or at least ethnic enclaves. I think of the South Asians in parts of New Jersey, the Koreans in the VA suburbs of DC, the Arab-Americans in Dearborn and Sterling Heights around Detroit, etc. You’re right that those aren’t the norm, and I think it’s very rare to non-existent in much of the Sun Belt, but in places with a lot of immigration, the new Little Italy’s are more likely to be Little Lagos or Little Seoul or Little Addis Ababa or Little Moscow and those places are often going to be in the suburbs.

  3. Jenny says:


    Glad to see you’re blogging again, your long form analysis has been missed.

    btw., how did you get kicked outta DK? You can email me.

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