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State Legislatures Are Silencing Native Voices Through Redistricting

Discrimination lawsuits are piling up in states that have approved final district maps.

Rep. Sharice Davids speaks during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 9, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Leaders of the Kansas legislature have openly stated their goal to gerrymander her out of Congress.

Heading into an election year another census shows an increasingly diverse population and many experts are following redistricting closely, saying diversity is not reflected in the process.

Many examples prove “Republicans could have chosen to compete for the votes of a multiracial America” but instead chose to undermine it, top redistricting expert at NYU Law Michael Li said.

Advocates feel voting rights are under attack on many levels and it’s caught the attention of members of Congress. There’s a strong push by Senate Democrats to update and restore voting rights legislation but they face an uphill battle.

One bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would modernize the Voting Rights Act and extend the preclearance criteria but without the support of centrist Democrats Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin the bills may not make it to the president’s desk.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed several options to pass election reform to overcome the lack of Republican support, including changes to the Senate’s 60 vote requirement to end a filibuster and advance legislation.

Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, says she originally co-sponsored the John Lewis Voting Rights Act but does not support amending the 60-vote threshold to advance the bill.

“Arizonans are also familiar with my long stated and firmly held belief that we must support the Senate’s 60 vote thresholds that will protect our country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy,” Sinema told Indian Country Today.

With voting rights protections not guaranteed by congress it’s important to take a close look at which state legislatures and independent redistricting commissions are accused of gerrymandering and diluting Indigenous voting power.

Watch: What Is Gerrymandering?

Kansas Legislature Wants Only Native Democrat out of Congress

At stake in Kansas is the state’s sole Democrat in the U.S. House Republicans there are openly saying that the goal of redistricting is to remove Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, from Congress. She represents Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle said the state should draw districts to elect four Republicans to Congress. A video was posted of Wagle on social media where she said she needs to “give” Davids “some more Republican neighborhoods,” the goal being to guarantee four Republican representatives.

“There are leaders in the Kansas Legislature who have explicitly stated their motivation to gerrymander maps to their party’s political advantage,” Davids said at a news conference last month. “I know people are tired of feeling like billionaires have more of a say than they do in our democracy, tired of having their voices taken away by partisan gerrymandering.”

The Republican legislature controls the process and will not produce a final map for the state’s districts until the last moment possible. The state has a Democrat as governor, who could veto the plan, but Republicans have enough votes to override a veto.

The ideal population for Davids’ congressional district is roughly 734,500. However, it now has nearly 58,000, about 8 percent, more than the ideal number. The other three districts are short, with the biggest gap in the sprawling 1st District of western and central Kansas.

Democrats fear GOP legislators will try to divide the Democratic stronghold of Wyandotte County and move part of it from the 3rd District into an expanded 1st District with overwhelmingly Republican rural areas. Some Republicans floated the idea in 2012.

No maps have been proposed yet. The redistricting deadline in Kansas is June 1.

Alaska Redistricting Draws Five Lawsuits

In Alaska, five lawsuits have been filed over the Alaska Redistricting Board’s legislative district boundaries issued on Nov. 10. Critics say the plans dilute the strength of minority voters.

One suit contends the board combined two racially diverse east Anchorage neighborhoods with the nearby predominantly Republican town of Eagle River. Critics say the pairing will diminish the clout of a racially diverse neighborhood while adding a state Senate seat for a predominantly White, heavily Republican area.

The decision “opens the board up to an unfortunate and very easily winnable argument to partisan gerrymandering,” said Alaska Redistricting Board member Nicole Borromeo, Athabascan. She’s one of two Alaska Native board members who voted against the pairing.

In western Alaska, a Native corporation and two citizens have filed suit against the board for creating boundaries they argue will undermine the voting strength of its predominantly Yup’ik shareholders. Calista is the for-profit Native corporation for the region created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

In a statement, Calista Director of Corporate Communications and Shareholder Services Thom Aparuk Leonard said, “Calista Corporation believes voting is one of the most powerful actions available to citizens. As an Alaska Native corporation formed under ANCSA (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act), it is incumbent upon us to assist in protecting the voting rights and powers of our shareholders.”

“The board’s 2021 plan creates house and senate districts that dilute the voting strength of Calista’s Alaska Native shareholders, including by placing them in districts with different social, political, and economic concerns,” the suit alleges.

The suit alleges the board’s plan would violate Constitutional equal protection clauses and the Voting Rights Act by denying or abridging the rights of “citizens of the Calista Region to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group…”

Calista filed the complaint on Dec. 10, in state Superior Court in Bethel. Its lawsuit is one of five filed over the Alaska redistricting board’s plan. The Alaska Superior Court has merged the five suits into one and will assign a judge to oversee it.

Arizona Redistricting Favors Republicans, More Litigation Likely

Arizona’s final district maps also favor Republicans. The new congressional boundaries create four Republican, two Democratic and three relatively competitive districts.

Arizona uses a bipartisan redistricting commission to redraw district maps and approved the final maps on Dec. 22.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission consists of five commissioners, two Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee accused the Independent chair Erika Neuberg of being “independent in name only” and not dutifully serving Arizona voters.

The two Democratic commissioners say the new congressional seats chip away at Indigenous voting power.

However, that could change in the years to come. Right now in congressional district 2 non-Native rural populations outnumber tribal nations and can sway the vote this next election.

But with tribal populations continuing to grow at faster rates than the rural areas surrounding them, it’s likely Native voters could regain control of the district.

It’s likely the new maps will be challenged in court.

Lawsuits were filed the last two times the commission approved district maps.

In the 2020 presidential election cycle, Arizona was a swing state and voted Democratic for the first time since 1996. Before that the state hadn’t been blue since 1948.

Splitting Idaho’s Reservation Population Centers

Tribes are saying Idaho’s reapportionment also splits, and dilutes, tribal population numbers. The Coeur d’Alene and Shoshone-Bannock tribes filed a joint challenge to the Idaho Supreme Court on the decision by the Idaho Commission for Reapportionment’s 2021 legislative district boundaries.

A news release from the tribes says the approved map ignores their requests, splits important communities of interest, and violates the Idaho Constitution.

That plan would split the Coeur d’Alene Reservation into two legislative districts and the tribal population center would be in a new district which includes parts of five different counties. Those counties stretch from Priest River and the Washington border in the north all the way to Weippe and the Montana border in the south and east. The tribe says it could mean that state representatives could be based more than 3 hours away from tribal lands.

“This district does not consider the tribal community, or any community of interest for that matter,” said Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “Our communities all deserve responsive, local representation by citizens who are familiar with the needs of their constituents and who are accessible to their constituents.”

The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes says the state’s reapportionment plan would divide the Fort Hall Reservation into three different legislative districts.

The largest population group on the Fort Hall Reservation lives near Bingham and Bannock county borders which the 2021 Legislative map splits out into two districts.

Chairman Devon Boyer of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes said, “‘this decision ignores the sovereignty of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and also ignores the tribes’ long repeated request to preserve our community of interest by keeping the reservation in substantially one legislative district. State legislative and congressional redistricting is a difficult and highly controversial concept for tribes. It is our intent to have equal voice and opportunity to elect representatives who consider and represent our tribal needs and interests,” Boyer said.

Montana Congressional District Competitiveness Questioned

For the first time in 30 years Montana gained a second congressional district.

However, advocates say the new congressional maps, which were finalized in November, dilute Native voting power, according to the Billings Gazette.

Deputy Director of Western Native Vote Ta’jin Perez says the organization does not plan on suing over the new congressional district maps despite concerns over district competitiveness.

“One of the major points of our advocacy when it relates to the commission’s drawing of our congressional districts was to keep tribal boundaries intact, as much as possible,” Perez said.

Congressional boundaries on the Blackfeet Nation were an area of concern. Ultimately the entirety of the Blackfeet Nation was included in the western district.

Perez said the organization advocated for at least two tribal nations in each of the two districts and they pushed to create competitive districts because “the voice of the tribes within a competitive district actually carry weight.”

“Unfortunately the map that was decided was not as competitive as we would’ve liked to see as far as a breakdown in the preference for one party over another. And so there were other options that included a more competitive Western district,” he said.

The more competitive draft maps were not adopted by the commission and Perez says “as it stands now it is basically more of the status quo.”

There was a debate about competitiveness, which is not a federally mandated criteria. The commission chair said the definition, which the commission defines, was not clear and sided with Republicans.

Western Native Vote is suing over legislation that targets same day voter registration and absentee ballot collections.

In Oregon “Nearly Impossible” to Elect Representatives for Those Communities

In Oregon, where Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature and hold the Governor’s office, some raised concerns that the district boundaries for state legislative seats were racially gerrymandered and would dilute the voting power of many of the state’s Indigenous voters and tribal nations.

Ultimately, no lawsuits challenging the districts were brought. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed off on the boundaries in late September.

In one case, the redrawn boundaries split Madras, a Warm Springs Reservation border town where many tribal citizens lived, worked, shopped or attended school, from the reservation. Previously, Madras shared the same house district with the reservation.

Positive trends with voter turnout and engagement among Native voters in recent years had made electing an Indigenous person likely if Madras was kept in the same district as the Warm Springs Reservation, like it previously had been, Brian Smith, a political consultant who submitted proposals to the state, told Indian Country Today and Underscore News.

Tribal advocates who submitted maps or worked to increase engagement with the process say the new districts will make it nearly impossible now to elect candidates representative of those communities at a time when voter-engagement efforts were beginning to make that a possibility.

The redrawn legislative districts had already caused a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs who was planning to run for a legislative seat to say she would no longer run because she no longer stood a chance to win.

“I didn’t expect it to get worse,” Smith, who is also a citizen of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, said, adding that he was perplexed that the maps disadvantaged Indigenous people instead of at least maintaining the status quo. “Now you’re definitely not getting someone elected anytime soon.”

Redistricting Concerns in Other States

The federal government is stepping in over some of the states’ redistricting changes.

Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the Justice department filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas over its redistricting plans.

He said the new maps in that state violate the Voting Rights Act and urged congress to restore the justice department’s preclearance authority.

The department also filed a statement of interest in Arizona litigation explaining private plaintiffs plausibly alleged the state’s new voting laws were passed with a discriminatory purpose. The department filed a similar statement of interest in Florida litigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed redistricting lawsuits in Ohio, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia, accusing those state legislatures of gerrymandering.

Democrats in North Carolina are planning to appeal to the state supreme court after a judge declined to toss out GOP-drawn maps that they say are illegal partisan gerrymanders.

In September the state Supreme Court ordered the state to delay the primaries for two months as litigation over the newly drawn maps made its way through a lower court. The state is expected to have one of the most competitive senate races this year.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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