Redistricting and updated political maps are at the heart of American democracy.
Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau tells lawmakers the demographics of their constituents, and likely, how they’ll vote. Lawmakers then redraw districts, in many cases, along partisan lines to give advantage to a specific party. This process, called gerrymandering, is at the heart of state legislatures across the country, and poses a significant challenge to LGBTQ rights in many states.
Gerrymandering has been at the heart of multiple court challenges since the 2020 election. As of July, 74 cases have been filed challenging district maps in 27 states as racially discriminatory or partisan gerrymanders.
While the conversation around gerrymandering often focuses on race or political affiliation, the LGBTQ community is often left out, despite having massive voting power.
The LGBTQ community has utilized its voting power for a long time, and famously elected Harvey Milk, the U.S.’s first openly gay person to hold public office, to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Since then, the number of openly-LGBTQ politicians is growing, with a record number expected to run in 2024.
Redistricting played a powerful role in Milk’s election. Despite the LGBTQ population making up one fifth of San Francisco’s voters at the time, the city’s at-large electoral system — where council members were elected by the whole city — put LGBTQ neighborhoods at a disadvantage.
Milk and other activists led the fight to change the city’s electoral system to district contests, and in 1977, Milk won his seat on the council.
The LGBTQ+ Victory Fund launched a first-of-its-kind campaign to lobby for redistricting that considers LGBTQ populations in map-drawing. The “We Belong Together” campaign, launched following the 2020 election, has two main focuses: Encourage LGBTQ organizations to lobby to keep LGBTQ areas intact and to gather data showing where LGBTQ communities are located within legislative districts.
“[We worked on] basically how to identify large groupings of LGBTQ people, and then advocate to the decision makers who are doing a lot to say, ‘Hey, this is a community of interest, and you need to make sure that they stick together,’” Victory Fund Vice President of Political Programs Sean Meloy said.
Communities of interest are communities of people that are grouped by a common factor — often race and class — that’s taken into account when redistricting happens. LGBTQ people aren’t classified as a community of interest in many states due to sexual orientation not being part of the census.
“A lot of other demographics are accounted for in the census,” Meloy said. “[The Census Bureau] did a pulse survey recently that asked about LGBTQ people. And that’s a great step in a great direction because every community and demographic has unique vulnerabilities, unique issues that government should understand so that they can help address them because they’re all people that they’re supposed to be working on behalf of.”
The Household Pulse Survey was launched in 2020 and tracks a wide variety of household data including, but not limited to, employment, housing security and access to health care. The survey also tracks sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the Census Bureau’s website, the survey tracks how “emergent issues are impacting households across the country from a social and economic perspective.”
Meloy said that this data collected by the Bureau allows for groups like the Victory Fund to draw maps of “centralized areas where there are same sex married couples.” Using the maps, groups can lobby mapmakers to not “draw a line right through” these communities, dividing up their voting power.
Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan and Montana are all states where maps are drawn by nonpartisan commissions — as opposed to lawmakers drawing the maps — and are the top targets of LGBTQ outreach going into the 2024 election cycle.
“They have fairer districts, and a lot of those states have districts that actually do respect LGBTQ people as communities of interest, and so you know, we had more LGBTQ led legislators elected in California and in Arizona and in Colorado,” Meloy said.
Other areas, such as New York, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and Boise, Idaho, could all see an increase in LGBTQ public officials if LGBTQ voters were taken into account in redistricting, according to Victory Fund.
“We know that once we elect some LGBTQ people, there is a domino effect that people feel they can come out, they can be in office, it breaks that barrier,” Meloy said. “And we’ve seen that in a lot of other places over the last 30 years, but we still have a lot of places that we need to continue breaking down those little barriers.”