Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews is paying close attention to how a delay in the release of redistricting data by the US Census Bureau could affect Alabama's Black community.
Last month, the Census Bureau announced that it won't be delivering data that state lawmakers and redistricting commissions use to redraw legislative districts until the end of September 2021.
Threadgill-Matthews is a board member for her local branch of the Alabama New South Coalition, an organization that works to mobilize Black voters in Alabama. Her concerns come as her home state's neighbor, Georgia, is the center of the national conversation over voting rights after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 202, which voting rights groups have said would target Black residents and other voters of color in the state.
"If this is enacted in Alabama, you can probably come back and cover the story because I'm going to jail," Threadgill-Matthews told CNN. "I've been thinking of going to Georgia to offer (voters) some water because I feel like it's ridiculous," she said, referring to a provision in the law that makes it illegal to hand out food or water to people standing in line to vote.
Georgia's SB 202 offers a glimpse into how certain laws can reduce voting accessibility for communities of color across the Southeast, some experts say. It also serves as a warning for what could come next. Many advocates currently have their eyes on the chance for decreased transparency due to the possibility of a shorter redistricting process because of the data delay.
"Unfortunately, a pattern we have seen over and over again, is that when incumbents view a community as a threat to their maintenance of political power, they will use their own power to push back against that threat," said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School.
Redistricting data, originally due at the end of 2020, is late due to complications stemming from the coronavirus pandemic as well as the Trump administration's push to exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted.
This has led the Black and Asian American electorate in Alabama and North Carolina, two of the states at the greatest risk for gerrymandering, per a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, to start sounding the alarm on how they could be impacted in major ways.
For Chavi Khanna Koneru, this has everything to do with how much influence the state's Asian American vote will have. As the executive director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together, she works with organizations to increase the political participation of the state's AAPI community.
"The time crunch is going to make everyone use that as a justification for having to move faster and not being as transparent. Because the community has grown, it really does impact our ability to have an impact on who gets elected and what that representation looks like."
The ripple effects
Threadgill-Matthews worries that the delay in redistricting data will lead to voter apathy in some cases.
"Questions about redistricting and not knowing who's going to be the representative or what district voters might be in would cause some apathy. When voters get used to representation from one person they are familiar with it's easy," she said. "If someone got thrown into a district with an unknown candidate or someone that's been in office that's not known to us, that may cause some apathy and some low voter turnout."
However, Alabama state Sen. Linda Coleman Madison is hopeful that voter apathy in the Black community will not be an issue, but she said that above all, she wants an accurate count.
"I don't think a delay will cause further voter apathy. We in the Black community are always concerned with gerrymandering, stacking and packing. My district is 32% White and 65% Black," she said. "When lines were redrawn after the last census I picked up areas that were traditionally White and I've worked to represent all areas fairly and get to know local leaders. I think people are beginning to look at what the person can bring and their commitment to overall good government."
As in the previous decade, Republicans are set to control the redistricting process in Alabama and North Carolina, something that worries Democrats regarding the implications of how maps could be drawn.
Threadgill-Matthews worries splitting up congressional districts in Alabama's "Black Belt" would lead to vote dilution and disruption in relationships between representatives and constituents that have been years in the making.
Black voters in Alabama tend to vote Democratic. And although it hasn't posed a serious long-term threat to the "hegemony of the Republican Party" in the state, there have been repeated concerns with incumbents using "the mechanisms of rules for how ballots are cast and counted ... and drawing lines in order to diminish the voices of groups they disfavor for whatever reason," Levitt, the law professor, said.
Threadgill-Matthews lives in the state's 7th Congressional District, which is 62% Black, with 45% of active voters self-reporting as Black in 2020, according to data from the Alabama secretary of state.
In 2019, federal trials were held over claims that Alabama's 2011 congressional redistricting map packed one-third of the state's African American population into the 7th District, instead of creating two majority African American districts. The current maps remain unchanged and the way in which they will be drawn this time around will greatly impact constituents.
"When it comes to the questions of redistricting, the linking thread, whether it's suffrage restriction, or polling place restrictions, or redistricting questions, what they all come down to are questions of democracy, anti-democracy, and anti-democratic tendencies," said R. Volney Riser, a history professor at the University of West Alabama.
"In American politics, because political partisanship tends to be so closely aligned with race, anything that involves one partisan seeking advantage over another partisan has the potential to introduce race into the equation," Riser added.
In North Carolina, the Asian American and Pacific Islander electorate shares similar concerns over redistricting. Koneru said she has witnessed the rapid increase of the Asian American population in the past decade, which has grown by 154% since 2000.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders accounted for 3.5% of the state's electorate in the 2020 elections, according to data provided by non-profit APIA Vote.
This means that close to 88,000 Asian Americans voted in the 2020 general election, Koneru said.
Much of the state's Asian American population are concentrated in three counties that encompass North Carolina's primary metro areas. Koneru says that if districts are drawn fairly, Asian Americans have the potential to sizably impact the vote in these areas.
Despite the growth in Asian American voters, gerrymandering threatens to reduce the political impact they can have.
"We're finally in a place where we have a seat at the table, are getting our voices heard. Politicians or elected officials who aren't happy with that turnout will certainly push for gerrymandered districts," Koneru said.
The Covid-19 pandemic motivated Asian American voters in North Carolina to become more politically engaged to combat the uptick in discrimination, Koneru said. The turnout of the AAPI voting-eligible population in North Carolina in 2020 was 62%, compared to 39% in 2016.
"We talked to a lot of people who were first-time voters, even though they had been registered for a while. It was really about wanting to have their voices heard because discrimination was impacting them economically," Koneru said.
It can be difficult to address redistricting concerns
Not everyone believes that these concerns surrounding redistricting are warranted.
Patrick Ryan, a spokesperson from the office of state Sen. Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the North Carolina General Assembly, issued a statement on behalf of North Carolina Senate Republicans saying that in 2019, "The legislature conducted all map-drawing in a committee room fully open to the public, and the computers used to draw the maps were livestreamed for any and all to observe."
The 2019 redrawing of those legislative and congressional districts was ordered by state courts, which found evidence of gerrymandered districts. Democrats picked up two US House seats in 2020.
"It's difficult to specifically address anonymous criticisms of a process that hasn't even begun, and it would seem that those lodging complaints are unaware of the widely praised model employed just two years ago," he said.
North Carolina state Sen. Wiley Nickel, a Democrat, disagrees.
"The issue of fair maps is especially important at a time when Asian Americans are facing increased discrimination and xenophobia across the country because of false COVID-19 related claims."
The 2020 election produced a more conservative state Supreme Court that is likely to influence redistricting this time around, Nickel and others fear.
State Sen. Ben Clark has been leading the effort in the Senate's Democratic caucus to monitor the redistricting process and the census data in North Carolina.
"The delay in receiving census data coupled with the adverse impact of extreme partisan gerrymandering should be of great concern to all North Carolinians," he said. "It is my hope that the condensed timeline will not be used as justification to obscure the redistricting process from engaged citizens who deserve an opportunity to choose their representatives, rather than allowing representatives to 'choose their voters.'"