Partisan Gerrymandering Targets Campuses
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
New research shows that gerrymandering dilutes the impact of student voters on large campuses -- especially at HBCUs. Voting rights groups are working to combat the practice.
By Maria Carrasco October 22, 2021
As states redraw state legislative and congressional maps using 2020 Census data, new research released by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education Thursday shows that college campuses -- especially historically Black colleges and universities -- have become prime targets of partisan gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering, which typically occurs when legislatures dominated by one party control the process of creating districts, empowers politicians to choose their voters -- and experts say it dilutes students’ voting power by splitting campuses into multiple districts. Lines can be drawn to split up groups -- referred to as “cracking” -- or they can be drawn to concentrate groups, leaving the surrounding districts “safe” from losing power, which is known as “packing.”
Nancy Thomas, director of the IDHE at Tufts University, said college campuses are an ideal target for Republican gerrymandering, since college students tend to lean left and have lately become much more inclined to vote. Since 2018, young voters have rallied and shown up to the polls more than in previous years, Thomas said.
“It was a stunning trajectory, which makes them a political powerhouse,” Thomas said during a press call discussing IDHE’s research. “And the combination of being centrally located and identifiable and then being a significant voting bloc makes them also a target.”
In fact, the larger the student community, the greater likelihood that it was gerrymandered at the congressional and statehouse levels, IDHE data analyst Prabhat Gautam explained during the call, which was also hosted by the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project. And the larger the minority student population, the higher the likelihood that the campus has been gerrymandered at the congressional level, he said, naming the University of South Carolina and the University of Georgia as prime examples. The odds of minority-serving campuses being split or packed by congressional districts increased by a factor of 1.8 -- nearly double -- across the country.
“HBCUs and [minority-serving institutions] by nature are communities of color,” said Dylan Sellers, national HBCU manager at the Campus Vote Project. “As such, they’ve been targeted for gerrymandering in the past and are at an increased risk … to have their communities packed and or cracked into multiple districts and their voices diminished.”
Gautam said the states with some of the highest number of student and minority student communities at risk of gerrymandering are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
To find at-risk campus communities, IDHE used American Community Survey data from 2014 to 2019 to identify census block groups, communities within 0.1 kilometers of each other where at least 20 percent of the total population was undergraduates. These geographic groups were clustered together to form the communities that IDHE analyzed, the data brief states.
IDHE also announced the release of a new tool, the Campus Boundaries Project, which allows users to see on a map where U.S. congressional and statehouse districts exist relative to college student communities. Using 2020 Census data, the tool identifies more than 1,800 communities nationwide where college or university students make up 20 percent of the population or more, shaded yellow on the map.
During the press call, Sellers called on Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, a revamped bill aimed at strengthening voting rights, which failed to pass the Senate Thursday when all 50 Republicans voted against it.
“We need Congress to take action in partisan gerrymandering once and for all, so that our students don’t have to go through this process continually,” Sellers said. “And we don’t have to come up with all of these tools to show you how bad the maps are in the first place.”
However, some states are drawing up maps that could actually give students more power. In Kansas, the state will, for the first time in 30 years, count all its college students in the towns where they go to school when it redraws state legislative districts next year. In Maryland, following concerns from the University of Maryland community, the Prince George’s County Council voted to amend a redistricting map put forward by the council last week to keep the university within District 3.
Current students and Campus Vote Project redistricting fellows say redistricting has directly impacted their lives. Andrew Taramykin, a fellow and sophomore at the University of Florida, said moving from a dorm on campus to an apartment less than a mile away meant he was represented in the state Legislature by a different representative from a different political party, since the university is split between two districts.
“My community, my life here, is the same,” Taramykin said. “I shop at the same grocery stores, get my bagels and coffee at the same place, but my representative changed.”
Taramykin said the split between districts can be confusing for students and dilutes their ability to participate in the voting process since sometimes they don’t even know who their representative is. Taramykin testified before the Florida House Redistricting Committee and advocated for the whole University of Florida to be designated within the same district. But it’s been challenging to get other students engaged in the issue, he said.
“We’ve been really trying to start a conversation,” Taramykin said. “That’s the starting point -- just getting students to understand what’s at stake here.”
CVP fellows draw maps of campus communities of interest in their own states and meet with students one on one or host events where they share information about the redistricting process and warn students that their voices are at risk of being stifled.
Katie Ellison, a CVP redistricting fellow in Michigan and junior at Central Michigan University, spoke about her experience growing up in Midland, Mich., which she said was severely gerrymandered.
“I’ve really lived a life where I knew that growing up in northern Michigan, it was a heavily gerrymandered district and my voice really would not be heard ever,” Ellison said. “The politicians in that area do not really have to represent the needs of the public because of the way the lines are drawn.”
To fight splitting her campus community, Ellison testified at the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and currently draws map proposals to submit to the redistricting committee to keep her campus together.
“We’ve done work and reviewed the maps and there are some good things, there are some bad things, as any map will never be completely perfect,” Ellison said. “But our goal is to make them as representative as possible, especially when it comes to college students.”
Like Taramykin, Ellison has found discussing redistricting with her fellow students a hard sell.
“Redistricting is something that people don’t really talk about,” Ellison said. “My understanding is that it frames everything in our democracy.”
Paige Anderholm, a graduate of Appalachian State University and CVP redistricting fellow in North Carolina, said in an interview that they became a fellow in September because of their concern about the deterioration of American democracy.
“When I found the Campus Vote Project position as a redistricting fellow, I saw a great opportunity,” Anderholm said. “Advocating for a fair, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process is one of the best ways to help because the consequences of gerrymandering are so multifaceted.”
Since joining CVP, Anderholm said they have already submitted 40 community-of-interest maps to the North Carolina Legislature. However, Anderholm noted that building student engagement has been a “mixed bag” because gerrymandering is such a complicated topic.
“I didn’t really understand exactly the impacts of gerrymandering and redistricting,” Anderholm said. “And so it’s kind of like this large, looming, intangible thing in the minds of many students and people. But usually, once you can get a student to come to a conversation or events, it becomes clear very quickly what the consequences of gerrymandering are.”
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