Gerrymandering as a Gentrifying Force in the Recent Political Era
By Sam Russek
It’s no secret that Republicans are laboring to make it harder to vote. While the majority of Americans feel everything possible should be done to make it easy for citizens to vote, 68% of Republicans feel the opposite. And it’s because they know they’re more likely to lose. People of color overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. This is why Mitch McConnell labeled the idea of making Election Day a federal holiday a “power grab,” why Brian Kemp, current governor of Georgia, put 53,000 voter registrations on hold, 70% of which were black voters, and why Texas Secretary of State David Whitley questioned the citizenship of nearly 100,000 registered voters in Texas, most of which were Latinx and naturalized citizens. But most troubling is the way Democrats have responded to these constitutional battles—that is, selectively—and what this says about the concept of voting in the eyes of those in power.
The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 to allow local governments with histories of discrimination to define their own election laws without federal approval. This statute was originally written with southern states in mind—among them Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas—but it also included smaller municipalities such as Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. At the time, Chief Justice Roberts of the majority opinion wrote that Congress remained free to impose federal oversight if they saw fit. But with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, this proved impossible.
Effective immediately, the Texas State Government declared that a Voter ID law previously blocked by a federal oversight committee on grounds of discrimination would be implemented. They also redrew their district maps, diluting Democratic influence in major city centers like Houston, Austin, and Dallas; influence, concomitantly, over Latinx communities and other people of color who largely vote for Democrats. This is why, if you look at district maps of Texas, the city of Austin is sliced into five districts, with one stretching into a sliver down toward San Antonio. Austin’s Latinx population is just shy of 50%, while Houston and Dallas hover between 36 and 38 percent, all of which are highly concentrated in some places but spread thin in others. Through this process Latinx communities and communities of color have their voting power redistributed to primarily white neighborhoods; those in power can manipulate population data to dilute communities’ ability to govern their own neighborhoods.
Although both of these state laws have been challenged in the courts, it’s taken years to deliberate on either of them. It took four years for the Voter ID law to be deemed “intent to discriminate against minorities.” And on May 2nd, eight years after the law was passed, the Texas Tribune reported that a decision either way in the ongoing redistricting case was likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, which will likely add to the wait time on a decision. It’s easier to win an election when your opponent is forced to wait on the court to decide whether or not your tactics are constitutional.
Under the limelight recently is the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which would effectively pull federal money away from urban areas in need of support. “Knowing the number and location of noncitizens would allow states to exclude them from the population totals that are used after every census to redraw the nation’s political maps,” said Michael Wines for the New York Times. “Maps based only on the citizen population would reflect an electorate that is less diverse than the nation at large — and generally more favorable to the Republican Party.”
The decision to provide less federal funding based on the proportion of people who are undocumented would push some of the most vulnerable communities in the United States further into the shadows. Lawmakers would be legally allowed to ignore a significant portion of the country’s population.
“We’re constantly helping noncitizens with issues related to our health care system, people who need assistance in trying to become citizens,” said State Senator Carol Alvarado. “People here are hard-working, they’re doing jobs that a lot of other people won’t do, and they’re contributing to the economy. They pay taxes, and they buy goods and services. They deserve to be counted.”
Here, Alvarado makes the assertion that, because people who are undocumented contribute to the economy, their voices should matter. This is the argument most often resorted to when the question comes up in courts: that economic agents deserve to be heard exactly because they are economic agents. In the first Supreme Court hearing about the citizenship question in the 2020 census, CityLab reported the argument conservative judges seemed most interested in had to do with modeling and regressions. The question was: What would adding this question necessarily affect regarding census information and accuracy? and not: what effect might this have on undocumented communities?
Perhaps most troubling is the way these battles are fought by Democrats on behalf of people who are undocumented, and how communities are rendered into numbers to be deleted or won. It’s not enough for people to live here; they must buy goods and services, pay taxes, do jobs others won’t—in short, their contributions must in some way negate the fact that they are undocumented.
It should be noted that Democrats are also likely to use gerrymandering to their benefit. By no stretch of the imagination is it a symmetric problem, but gerrymandering in and of itself is a product of the American system of governance dating back before slavery was abolished—with an end-goal of suppressing democracy and leveling one group’s interest over another.
In New York, the $25 billion Manhattan Yards real estate project on Manhattan’s West Side was subsidized through process others have called a kind of financial gerrymandering. A New York State economic development agency strung together a number of census tracts to manipulate the West Side development zone into falling under the desired aggregate unemployment standard, essentially using legislation and census data meant to uplift some of New York’s poorest communities in Harlem to subsidize development for the mega-rich. $1.2 billion meant for investment in impoverished communities went toward the most expensive real estate project in US history, a “vast neoliberal Zion” subsidized by local and state government.
Whereas in the political arena Democrats have largely contested Republican efforts to gerrymander, New York is unequivocally understood as a sort of liberal Shangri-la, oftentimes touted by Republicans as an example of what liberals want the rest of the United States to become. But it seems both parties turn a blind eye when a similar brand of gerrymandering is used to subsidize development projects that change city landscapes and oftentimes displace marginalized communities.
Gentrification is fueled by tax incentives tied to government zoning, which can be gerrymandered depending on the desires of those in charge. These problems are often treated as separate. But partisan gerrymandering opens the door for financial gerrymandering — it’s a political game that ultimately falls on the backs of the nation’s most vulnerable. Unaffordable housing is a segregating tool that diminishes community agency in a manner no less insidious than gerrymandering, and it is often because of gerrymandering that communities are denied a choice in the first place.
Here in Austin, Apple’s new campus on the line between Travis and Williamson county could receive up to a 65% tax refund over the next 15 years from Williamson County on top of an estimated $36 million in incentives from the state, the city of Austin, and Travis County combined. Unlike Amazon’s competition for its second headquarters, which led to protests against its $3 billion special tax break, Apple didn’t ask for any tax breaks, but city and state leaders were happy to provide them anyway.
Within the past year, housing prices in Austin, already the tenth-most income segregated city in the country, have increased by 9.5 percent, reaching a median of more than $368,000. At the same time, more than 55,000 people have moved into the metro area and its surrounding suburbs, pushing communities of color out in the process.
In situations like these, politicians often speak of development as though it helps everyone. After activists forced Amazon to rethink their decision to base their second headquarters in Queens, Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio said, “Any time jobs don’t come to New York City, it’s a loss.” The cost to locals, it seems, doesn’t matter so long as the city is constantly developing. The city is seen as separate from its residents, or willing to shed those residents in the name of “progress.” Similarly, the editorial board of the New York Times defended the Amazon HQ2 deal because, at the moment, “The subways don’t work, the streets are gridlocked, the housing is unaffordable, the shelters are overcrowded, and the schools are segregated and often inadequate.” It is their understanding that the estimated $27 billion in tax revenue on top of the 25,000 jobs which Amazon pledged to bring would have provided a means to fix those problems. “Think how much tougher it’ll become for the typical citizen,” they write, “if New York gets a reputation for ... their hostility to business.”
Who does census data stand to help? How, and for what purpose, can you quantify a community? So long as it can be said that the change has helped someone, displacement as a result of business or industry is treated as a necessary evil. That the state is willing to barter with tax laws and community land without the input of the communities themselves demonstrates how financial gerrymandering is in fact a form of partisan gerrymandering. Only it isn’t Democrats and Republicans fighting. It’s the wealthy and governing class actively working against their most vulnerable constituents.
Zoning laws are altered depending on the desires of those in power—and more often than not, it seems, those desires work directly against the agency of marginalized communities. Both forms of gerrymandering are equally insidious and indicate a larger problem deeply embedded within the American system of governance itself.
The fluidity with which all levels of the U.S. government can create, maintain, and adjust border zones within the state itself as a means of managing the greater population indicates an explicit relationship with racial and class division. It’s not enough to elect whichever left-leaning candidate that you feel might change the system. The system itself is the very division Democrats claim to be fighting against. People can’t simply be voters to be influenced or divided by those in power. Communities aren’t puzzles to be tinkered with until the desired result is achieved. If systemic change is to be achieved, no group of people can be rendered into data.