A Tennessee state legislative committee on Wednesday advanced one of the nation’s most radical redistricting proposals: A plan that would carve Nashville into three separate congressional districts and dramatically weaken the political power of Black voters in the state’s largest city.
The proposal would gerrymander Nashville “into political oblivion” and reduce its residents “from proud citizens of a capital city to captives inside three colonies,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said in a statement after the plan advanced through the state House redistricting committee.
Cooper, a member of the House Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats, has represented Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District since 2003. The district, which encompasses the entire city of Nashville and surrounding Davidson County, has not elected a Republican since 1872. Nashville, Cooper noted in his statement blasting the plan, has “remained politically whole for 230 years.”
The current redistricting cycle has set off furious rounds of gerrymandering across the country, with lawmakers redrawing electoral maps that in many cases will render state legislative and congressional districts entirely uncompetitive.
Under the Tennessee GOP’s proposal, the epicenter of the 5th Congressional District would shift to rural areas outside Nashville that are far more favorable to Republicans. Other parts of the city and Davidson County would be merged into two other districts that Republicans won by 40 points each in 2020.
The map would dilute the power of Nashville’s residents, including its relatively large Black population, which accounts for roughly 28% of Davidson County’s total population. And it would likely ensure that Republicans win all three seats that would surround and include the Nashville area, ending more than a century of Democratic representation of Nashville and leaving the party with only one seat in Tennessee’s nine-member congressional delegation.
“The damage this map does to the political influence of minority groups in Nashville is devastating,” Cooper said in his statement. “Our robust, diverse communities in Nashville are represented and affirmed in Washington, D.C., today when Nashville has its own voice in Congress. That voice is silenced when we are colonized by outlying rural communities.”
He added: “What Republicans could not win in local elections, they are stealing through gerrymandering.”
Odessa Kelly, a progressive who last year launched a 2022 primary challenge against Cooper, also blasted the plan in a video posted on Twitter.
Republicans are splitting Nashville “for no other reason than to destroy a Democratic stronghold in the state of Tennessee, and to dilute the voices of Black, brown and immigrant people, progressive thought, and the voices of anyone else who wants to escape the traditions of the Old South,” Kelly said.
Entering into this round of redistricting, Democrats across the country feared that GOP state legislatures would use their power to gerrymander enough districts to essentially eliminate Democrats’ slim congressional majority, even before 2022 elections began.
That hasn’t necessarily happened, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which found that this round of redistricting has amounted to “a wash” between the two parties, in part because GOP-controlled states were already so effectively gerrymandered, and in part because Democrats have drawn favorable maps in Illinois, New Mexico and Oregon.
But the GOP will still enjoy a partisan advantage simply from how districts are drawn, and its most aggressive gerrymanders have succeeded in further eroding the power of Black and other minority voters, particularly in major urban areas of red and purple states.
In North Carolina, GOP legislative majorities drew new maps that would favor Democrats in only three of the state’s 14 congressional districts, even though the state is narrowly divided politically. If overall vote counts were evenly split in future elections, North Carolina Republicans would emerge victorious in 64 of the state’s 120 state legislative districts, and in 32 of its 50 state senate districts, an independent analysis of the new maps found.
The practice of cracking cities like Nashville is a particularly pernicious way to limit the power of urban centers — and Black and minority populations that typically make up relatively large shares of their population. In Texas, for instance, Austin is divided into six separate congressional districts, even though its population — roughly 960,000 people — exceeds the average size of a single congressional district by only about 200,000 residents.
Efforts to split cities have become even more aggressive in recent redistricting cycles, as urban and suburban areas have become increasingly Democratic. And in already-gerrymandered red states, cracking blue urban areas has served as the GOP’s best option to further consolidate control.
Utah Republicans divided Salt Lake City, a Democratic bastion, into separate districts, while North Carolina Republicans split Raleigh and Greensboro into multiple districts. Oklahoma Republicans broke Oklahoma City into three districts, likely erasing a competitive area that a Democrat won as recently as 2018.
Elsewhere, Republicans have decided against splitting major cities with large Democratic populations. The Kentucky GOP briefly considered cracking Louisville, the state’s largest city that sits almost entirely within a safe Democratic district, before leaving it mostly intact. But Republicans did move Franklin County, the seat of the state capital that is roughly 10% Black, out of the 6th Congressional District, effectively ending any lingering Democratic hopes of winning the formerly competitive district. On the state legislative level, Kentucky Republicans did not create a single district in which Black people will make up the majority of residents.
Nashville’s population has grown rapidly over the last decade. But at roughly 700,000 people, it is still small enough to fit into a single congressional district. The average population in U.S. congressional districts is predicted to be around 761,000 people next year.
The proposed Tennessee maps still have to clear multiple votes in both chambers of the state legislature. Even if they do, they could face legal challenges of the sort filed against new maps in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, where a Justice Department lawsuit alleges the redrawn districts disadvantage minority voters.
“There is still time,” Cooper said in his statement, “for the General Assembly to come to its senses and stop crippling Nashville.”