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Republicans Target College Campuses for Gerrymandering, New Voting Restrictions

Despite barriers, young people voted in record numbers in recent elections and continue to exert their political power.

Voters cast their ballots in New York City, on April 2, 2024.

Young voters are flexing their power more than ever, from helping to stop the “red wave” in 2022 with historic voter turnout to leading the vote “uncommitted” movement in this year’s Democratic primaries. With a lineup of contentious elections this fall, young people are now preparing for a different kind of political challenge: gerrymandered college campuses.

Gerrymandering is when state legislatures intentionally manipulate an election district’s borders to alienate a group of voters. In recent years, gerrymandering schemes have put college communities in their crosshairs, leaving college towns — and in some cases, single campuses — carved into two or three different districts. It’s especially pressing that voters understand their district maps this year, considering that presidential races nearly always attract a spike in voter turnout.

North Carolina Case Study

It’s no secret why Republican legislatures view college campuses as communities of interest, according to Mitchell Brown, senior counsel on voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for communities facing voter suppression.

“When you split up a college campus into two districts, it does not allow ‘us’ as students to come together to work on common issues,” Brown explained. “Now you have two or three different candidates who may not care about what’s happening at their school.”

Students are also seen as easy targets. They’re only in college for a relatively short time, and the presumption is they don’t vote. But students do vote — and they often vote for Democratic candidates and liberal causes. In recent months, this has made college students the target of Republican-led efforts to erect new voter restrictions ahead of the 2024 election.

Brown said gerrymandering and other voter suppression efforts are particularly prevalent in states like North Carolina. Historians trace the state’s gerrymandering roots back to 1881 when a two-year-long campaign by lawmakers to segregate Black voters concluded with the formation of Vance County. Last fall was the most recent example, when the state legislature approved new district maps, drawing widespread criticism for extreme partisan gerrymandering and all but securing three new Republican wins for Congress.

“In North Carolina, in our congressional districts in particular, there’s been a fight over minority representation in Congress for the last 40 years,” Brown said. “A lot of the redistricting jurisprudence that we use today to bring redistricting cases or to prove them comes out of North Carolina.”

Historically, Democrats in North Carolina have found more success in the governor’s race while Republicans often prevail in federal elections, making it a “purple state” where political power is constantly in flux. Purple states are prime targets for gerrymandering, and as political power across the South begins to shift, turning Republican strongholds blue, gerrymandering is only expected to worsen.

Understanding Gerrymandering

Recent gerrymandering cases affecting college campuses in South Carolina and Georgia illustrate why Republicans have come to rely so heavily on gerrymandering: It slices communities into political pieces, making it almost impossible for liberal college communities to elect Democrats.

In most places, the state legislature controls the process of redrawing district maps for state and congressional districts every 10 years once updated census information is obtained. For the most part, redistricting follows standard legislative procedure, requiring a majority vote of approval in each chamber. A major criticism against this process is that when one party controls the legislature, it empowers members to redraw districts to their party’s advantage, opening the door to gerrymandering.

Efforts to gerrymander fall into one of two categories: cracking or packing. Cracking splits up groups of people by shared traits, like party affiliation or race. Dispersing the group into multiple districts makes them the minority wherever they are, making it almost impossible for them to elect their desired candidates.

Packing, on the other hand, jams a group into as few districts as possible. When one political party is concentrated in an area, it allows for overwhelming wins in a handful of districts but weakens that group’s voting power everywhere else.

“College students and the people who live in college towns tend to be heavily Democratic,” said Michael Li, an expert on gerrymandering who serves as senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “It’s a nice block of Democratic voters that you can either split apart or pack together with other Democrats in order to achieve a partisan effect.”

Targeting college towns has proven to be an efficient way for Republicans to pursue partisan gerrymandering. “That’s the same reason why people of color are often targeted because we have residential segregation, and it’s just easy to say, ‘OK, here’s a pocket of Democrats,’” Li said.

Redistricting is subject to high standards, typically outlined in state constitutions or statutes. Those standards include distributing the population equally, avoiding minority discrimination, and keeping groups with shared traits and interests together, also known as “communities of interest.” Although the Supreme Court deems excessive partisan advantage unconstitutional, federal courts address partisanship allegations sparingly because of disagreement over how much is “too much.”

Some gerrymandering campaigns focus solely on partisan groups; other times, they are racially motivated; some efforts take a double-pronged approach. Gerrymandering is particularly ingrained in the electoral system across the Southeast, where it couples with other racist voter suppression tactics that have targeted Black voters since Jim Crow-era laws.

“During Reconstruction, when there were limited efforts to try to expand educational opportunities to newly freed slaves, that’s when most of the historically Black colleges or universities [HBCUs] were created, and they were created in Southern communities,” said Sharon Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida with a focus on minority and African American politics. “Because so many of these efforts to gerrymander and to disenfranchise are taking place in the South, they disproportionately affect HBCUs.”

Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s Brown is an alumnus of North Carolina A&T State University, the largest HBCU. The university was a victim of GOP gerrymandering in 2010 and again in 2016. According to Brown, Republicans’ efforts divided the college between two congressional districts, separating thousands of Black voters.

Reporting from The Guardian illustrated the absurdity of the effort. Walking from the campus library to the dining hall would cross A&T students from the state’s 6th District over into the 13th, both represented by white Republicans.

Fractured Campuses

Voting rights groups say splitting college campuses into multiple voting districts fosters confusion among voters and discourages turnout.

According to Li, sometimes students show up to vote on election day and learn they don’t live in the district they assumed.

“People are like, ‘I thought I was voting in this race, and I was all excited.’ And it turns out that, ‘Oh, no, you live a block away,’” he said. “There certainly are examples where buildings are split, [even] dormitories. The other half of the dorm is voting in this race, but you’re not.”

Zoë Williamson, associate digital communications director for the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, an organization dedicated to student civic engagement, said that maintaining campus polling sites is one of the best strategies for helping students navigate the confusion.

“As students learn what district they’re in, you’re able to direct them toward the polling location that best serves them and have transparent information about why the campus is broken down that way,” Williamson explained.

Williamson graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) in 2019. As a student voting organizer, she experienced many of the same challenges that student voters continue to face–including a cracked campus.

Today, LSU’s campus is divided into multiple state districts. Baton Rouge, where LSU is located, was carved up between two congressional districts, dividing the city’s colleges until a ruling changed things. The two-district configuration was struck down in 2022 under a federal lawsuit for racial gerrymandering, as it created only one majority-Black district in the state. Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry approved new congressional district maps in January, forming a second majority-Black district, which the Supreme Court ordered the state to uphold this May.

“When I was a student, I felt like we were constantly trying to navigate voter suppression tactics,” Williamson said. “From not allowing student IDs as voter IDs to places like Florida or Texas not allowing external groups to do voter registration, or not allowing early voting on campuses.” According to the LSU graduate, these tactics are intended to minimize students’ access to the ballot and make them feel like voting isn’t worth the effort.

Roy Thorson is a recent MBA graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point who has been involved with campus organizing for years. He serves as the student advisory board chair and Wisconsin representative for Campus Vote Project, which aims to empower student voters.

Since August, Thorson has closely followed redistricting efforts in Wisconsin following a lawsuit from a group of Democratic voters alleging that the state’s district maps were “extreme partisan gerrymandering” and violated the state constitution. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed new legislative maps into law in February, effectively ending the lawsuit.

“We’re starting to move in the right direction with those maps. I think they’re more competitive,” Thorson said. “But to say they’re perfect I don’t think would be accurate either.”

Following the maps’ release, Thorson researched the new districts’ placement relative to college campuses.

“I advocate for keeping campuses together. That’s huge for empowering students and removing some of those institutional barriers,” Thorson said. “There’s no college that’s necessarily split right down the middle with these maps, but [with] some of them, the campus will be at the very edge of that map, which means some commuting and off-campus students may vote in a different district.”

Li said it’s a barrier for student voters when the campus is at the edge of the voting district because many students must rely on inconsistent public transit to get them to their polling site.

Brown noted that when students are reassigned dorms every year, their mailing addresses tend to differ from their residential addresses, and there’s another layer of confusion and hassle when re-registering for each move.

“We have this self-perpetuating cycle. Politicians don’t think students vote, and students end up not voting because they’re discouraged from voting,” said Brown.

Reforming the System

Gerrymandering has broad effects that minimize principles of democracy, but the harm it inflicts disproportionately affects communities of color. According to students, there is hope in current reform efforts, like the Supreme Court’s unexpected ruling last year recognizing that Alabama failed Black voters. These voters made up a quarter of the state’s population, but they were limited to a single majority-Black district. In 2019, former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams founded Fair Count, a voting rights organization that helps marginalized communities draw their own fair district maps. Readily available online, the maps serve as both suggestions for lawmakers and potential evidence in future anti-discrimination lawsuits.

Fair districting proponents have sound advice to student voters: Make your voice heard and show up to vote.

“Make sure that nothing can happen that will make it so that your vote won’t count,” said Austin. “If there’s a requirement that you have to vote in a certain precinct, know where you’re supposed to vote. If there are requirements in terms of mail voting or early voting, make sure that you’re aware of those things.”

Austin is hopeful that threats to democracy will motivate more young people to head to the polls. When redistricting plans enter legislatures, she believes people should follow these pieces of policy closely.

“I think the first thing they need to do is hold their representatives accountable and find out how those representatives are voting on these voting bills,” said Austin, “[especially] when bills come forward that are designed to disenfranchise people of color or make it harder for young people to vote.”

When Thorson first got involved with Campus Vote Project in 2021, he participated in a workshop series where he and other college students learned how to use computer software to design fair district maps. Some of this work was sent to legislatures and action groups to act as suggestions for redistricting.

“You had to try and meet the needs of everyone and keep these groups together, so that really opened my eyes as far as what was required to get these maps drawn,” Thorson said. “Then to actually submit the maps that you made so that you could advise people working on these projects was a pretty cool opportunity to get involved, and it made me feel as though my voice was being heard.”

Despite all the barriers, young people voted in record numbers in recent elections and continue to exert their political power.

“You’ve got to, unfortunately, do a little bit of extra homework because people have made it hard,” said Li. “Just don’t assume that the person whose ad you see on T.V. is the person you have a chance to vote on.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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