I’m sure most of you feel the same way, but I’ve been anxiously waiting to finally see what the 2020 U.S. Census numbers will mean across Mobile’s seven City Council districts. While that could just be a sign that I need to either drink more or get an exciting hobby like beekeeping, we’re all going to be hearing about these numbers in the coming days and weeks, so we might as well get pumped about it.
Trust me, this is exciting stuff.
The city supplied the numbers as they currently stand in each district, and what’s clear is there has been a westward shift of the populace in general as well as a change in what some might call “White” or “Black” districts. As things currently stand, there are three majority Black districts — meaning more than 50 percent of its inhabitants are African American — and two majority White districts. One of those two districts is majority White by just nine-tenths of a percent.
The other two districts — 5 and 7 — don’t have a majority of either ethnicity, but both are right around 48 percent Black. So if you’re keeping score at home that means Mobile’s City Council districts break down this way: Districts 1, 2, 3 — all more than 62 percent Black; District 4 — 50.09 percent White, 40.8 Black and 9.1 percent “Other.” Districts 5 and 7 are roughly 41 and 43 percent White and 48 and 49 percent Black, respectively. And District 6 is 64 percent White.
Of course, that’s as things stand right now, because the changes in the census numbers will require the city to redistrict, which is essentially manipulating district borders to get more or less the same number of people in each one. This is where all the wrangling will take place over the coming weeks and months.
So why does the city have to redistrict? The Federal Voting Rights Act requires that each district be within 6 percent of the mean for each district. In simpler terms, if you divide the city population by seven, you’ll get an average number of 26,720 that should be in each district. The law allows for there to be up to 6 percent more — 28,323 — or 6 percent less — 25,116 — in a district, but mathematically you can’t do too much of that before you’ll wind up with either too many or too few left to fill out the remaining districts.
Remember when I said there’d been a westward move? Right now the three most eastern districts are significantly below that average number, District 4 is just about dead on, and the other three have too many people. So the law requires the city to move district lines to even those numbers out, which means thousands of citizens will have the representatives they just elected changed.
But this process is fairly complex as well. The Voting Rights Act prohibits things like “cracking” a neighborhood in two and encourages keeping communities together. Even the location of a city councilor’s home can affect how lines are drawn because they can’t be drawn out of the district they represent. On top of all that, five votes of the City Council are required to approve any plan, which means councilors will have plenty of input before any final version is reached.
Right now, District 1 has 24,638 residents, D2 has 23,220, D3 22,632, D4 26,910, D5 27,811, D6 31,126 and D7 30,704. District 2 has 4,000 fewer people than it did the last time reapportionment took place in 2012, and District 6 has nearly 3,000 more people than it did. It’s a little bit like playing the board game Risk and trying to figure out how to properly spread your troops, except in this case, a whole lot of people have to agree with what you decide, even those folks way out in Kamchatka. (OK, I just nerded out on the Risk analogy.)
The city announced its first take on redistricting Tuesday and there are a couple of headlines there. First, under that plan, D7 will become a majority Black district, going from its current 48.9 percent to 55 percent African American and dropping to 37 percent White. The proposed map also shifts a good bit of Spring Hill into District 1. The plan for District 2 would leave it 58.7 percent Black and 36.2 percent White — about 8 percentage points closer together than it currently stands.
As nearly everything in our fair city becomes politicized along racial lines, I have little doubt there will be many end-of-the-world scenarios expressed over these shifts, and it’s almost certain conspiracy theorists will attempt to assign evil, racist motives to annexation efforts. But before anyone starts making predictions about what’s going to happen if a particular district “goes Black or White,” there’s one major thing to consider — reapportionment probably isn’t going to change voter behavior.
The census was taken before the latest city election, so two White councilors were elected in districts where Black citizens are the largest ethnic group. District 5, which is 48 percent Black, elected White Joel Daves with 75 percent of the vote. And in District 7, which is 49 percent Black, Gina Gregory, who is also White, took 80 percent of the vote.
Here’s the real mind-blower — in every single district, there exist enough voting-age citizens of an ethnicity other than that of the person elected, to easily have defeated him or her. For example, Council President C.J. Small, who is Black, won reelection in District 3 with 2,888 votes, which was almost 90 percent of the vote. There are 4,346 voting-age White citizens in his district. If 66 percent of those people had voted for someone else, Small would have lost. The same is true in every other district.
I say all this to simply point out our notions of what a “Black District” or “White District” is are entirely tied to horrifically low voter turnout producing reliable results. Only 24 percent of registered voters participated in last year’s city election runoffs.
And annexation? If we bring in the 13,000 people needed to get Mobile back over 200,000 population, that would mean an extra 1,857 in each district — hardly enough to “flip” a district back White as some have alleged. Under the city’s plan, D7 would have an almost 5,000-citizen gap between Black and White residents.
There’s actually something to be excited about with redistricting. As most of our districts move closer to being ethnically balanced, hopefully the elections will become less and less about whether a candidate is from the same tribe as the majority in the district and more about quality candidates who can appeal to people of all ethnicities. When there are 27,000 citizens in a district and all it takes is two or three thousand to win, shouldn’t that encourage more people who’ve been told, “someone like you can’t win in that district?”
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