Tennessee’s state legislative and congressional district boundaries are determined by the state legislature, subject to a gubernatorial veto.
Community of Interest Story
Tennessee advocates noted blatant and strategic racial gerrymandering on the part of lawmakers, highlighting an egregious example in North Nashville, a historically Black neighborhood in the state’s capital. Vincent Dixie, the former head of the Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus and the Chair of the Democratic Caucus at the time, was drawn out of his district in an early draft map. In the process, a district that most consistently allowed some of the city’s Black residents to elect their candidate of choice would have been decimated. Pressure from community advocates and legal questions about unlawful racial gerrymandering resulted in the legislature reversing course and keeping Dixie’s district whole. Yet, the legislature’s reversal was an outlier.
Organizers expressed that the legislature stood its ground on the wrong side of the public interest in all other disputes regarding redistricting. According to advocates, the final maps harmed minority voters and opportunity districts through excessive partisan gerrymandering and county splitting.
As such, a lawsuit was filed in August 2023 by a coalition of community organizations and voters (including the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, and the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee) alleging that Tennessee’s congressional and state senate redistricting maps were created with the intention of discriminating against Black voters and other voters of color.
Overall State Grade: F
Disregard of public input: Opportunities for input were limited and non-profit groups like the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, CivicTN, and the NAACP Tennessee State Conference had to step in to fill the gap. Although the legislature allowed for the online submission of draft maps, maps had to be complete statewide maps and community of interest maps were not allowed. Advocates stated that the legislature’s attorney rejected all maps submitted, saying they were not compliant with state law without providing further details. Additionally, there was no evidence that the legislature took public input into account as they passed final maps that were almost identical to the first draft of maps they shared with the public.
Lack of language access and public participation: Nonprofit organizations and activists had to provide materials and translation into languages other than English because the legislature failed to do so.70 Legislators only accepted written submissions from the public and did not allow live testimony to be provided remotely. A Tennessean seeking to provide live testimony on redistricting had to be physically present at the Tennessee State Capitol in the middle of the day when many people are at work.
Lack of transparency in how input was received: The legislature’s process was secretive and not open to public feedback. Legislators on the committee sometimes stated they had never seen maps, even as other legislators claimed they shared them with the entire committee. Coalitions submitted maps but never received timely feedback on their submissions or an indication of how their maps were taken into account.
Local Grade: D-
Advocates gave local redistricting a slightly higher rating at a D-minus. There were more successes in organizing against egregious racial gerrymandering issues pertaining to Black and Latinx communities at the local level, but advocates highlighted significant problems with local redistricting in Fayette County, Clarksville, Covington, and Chattanooga.
- Partnerships matter: Relationships with community-based grassroots organizations, national organizations, and mutual aid organizations were critical in mobilizing community members. Further, redistricting advocacy strengthened existing relationships among grassroots organizations. Organizations developed relationships, increased subject matter knowledge, and educated the public in ways that will continue to bear fruit in the future.
- Engaging people directly affected works: One organizer shared that presenting communities with opportunities to join strategy calls and informational sessions culminated in a rally and approximately 300 people speaking out about unfair maps.
- Meaningful public input is needed: Organizers fought for transparency and hearings, however, some advocates said this was not enough and that the legislature feigned a transparent process despite the lack of meaningful public input into the process.