Redistricting: Messy, Political and Partisan-But Nonetheless Important

By Elizabeth Toledo, NGLTF Executive Director, and attorney Darren Rosenblum

In almost every state capital across the United States, a process is unfolding that will help determine the composition of the next Congress as well as your state legislature and, in many cases, your school board and city council.

The process is secretive and, some would argue, arcane. Nonetheless, it will influence the amount of progress we in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community are able to achieve in the coming decade.

We're talking about redistricting-the messy, political and often partisan art of drawing new political boundaries to reflect population shifts. Redistricting takes place every 10 years, after the U.S. Census reports new population numbers to the states.

Historically, people shut out of power-people of color, language minorities, recent immigrants-have been discriminated against in the redistricting process. Either "packed" into a single voting district or split into a number of districts, the result is an inability to gain effective political representation.

Political parties and incumbent politicians again this year will try to use the redistricting process to their advantage-and there is no reason why GLBT people and progressives of all stripes cannot do likewise.

But first, we must insert ourselves as a community into a process that was never intended to be open to us or easy to understand. Only when we participate fully in the political process can we expect to achieve the political power that is rightfully ours.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has issued a report entitled "Redistricting and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community: A Strategy Memo." This is meant to help local GLBT activists and our allies influence the redistricting process.

You probably know the principle behind redistricting-one person, one vote. But you may wonder, what does this have to do with you? Consider one statistic: Because of the number of revised Congressional districts that will be drawn this year as well as the number of retirements that will follow the redistricting process, between 80 and 100 House seats are expected to be competitive in the year 2002 Congressional elections.

Add to that the fact that the political party out of power picks up an average of several dozen seats during the first election following a change in political control of the White House, and you can see that the very real potential exists for a sea change in political control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The new political lines that will be drawn are of paramount importance to the GLBT community as well as to people of color, recent immigrants to the U.S. and women. Will your new state and local districts be most likely to elect a conservative, a liberal or a moderate? Will this elected official be someone who is friendly to progressive communities or hostile? Will the newly elected gay man or lesbian from your district find their incumbency threatened or will they find it easier to win re-election in their new district?

NGLTF encourages GLBT activists to help create and maintain districts that will make city councils and school boards, state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives more representative of the racial, cultural and gender diversity of the U.S. population. This is not only an ethical imperative; it is in our self-interest. The fact is that elected officials who are women, people of color and members of other underrepresented populations traditionally have been among the GLBT community's staunchest allies. Although there are exceptions to this rule, consider this statistic: of the 59 Democratic members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, fully one half are black or Latino.

So what can you do? The first step is to visit our web site and download for free NGLTF's redistricting memo. The URL is www.ngltf.org/downloads/redistrict.pdf

The next step is, get involved. Hook up with other activists in your community and find out what is happening to ensure a fair and open redistricting process. Work with allies wherever you can find them- and if you can‚t find them, create your own.

Right now, in state capital after state capital, the process has begun. Too often we're expected to color inside the lines. This time, let‚s redraw them.

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