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Tennessee lawmakers turn attention to redistricting during legislative session

Proposed Tennessee House redistricting map that advanced through redistricting committee in...
Proposed Tennessee House redistricting map that advanced through redistricting committee in December. Under this plan, Shelby County would lose one state House seat.(WMC)
Published: Jan. 10, 2022 at 6:25 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes Tuesday.

In addition to passing a state budget and debating laws impacting 6.8 million residents, state lawmakers will turn their attention to something they only do once a decade.

A lot is at stake.

Some states give the responsibility of redrawing legislative and congressional districts, a process known as redistricting, to independent and non-partisan panels.

In Tennessee, lawmakers get to redraw the boundaries.

A lot of things have changed over the past decade, but Shelby County’s population is not one of them.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the county added just 2,100 people from 2010 to 2020.

Action News 5 political analyst Michael Nelson says that a slow rate of growth comes at a cost.

“Shelby County is going to lose one of its seats in the state House of Representatives because our population has not grown as fast as the rest of the state,” said Nelson.

Instead of 14 state House seats, Shelby County will have 13 under a plan being pushed through the general assembly.

State Representatives London Lamar and Torrey Harris, both Democrats, will have to either face each other in an election or one will have to step aside.

It’s all part of a process known as redistricting when legislative and congressional boundaries are redrawn using the new population figures from the Census.

It happens once every 10 years.

“It’s up to each state to decide how it goes about redistricting,” said Nelson.

In Tennessee, lawmakers come up with new boundaries for the very districts they represent. Some call it a highly partisan process.

The Tennessee Democratic Party, for instance, is threatening to sue over a reported plan to split Nashville up into multiple congressional districts, potentially making it difficult, if not impossible, for a Democrat to win in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Nelson says that’s not likely to happen in Memphis because of federal voting rights laws against discrimination.

“This is the only majority-black congressional district in this state, and any effort to sort of split it up would bring down the wrath of the federal courts,” said Nelson.

Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen wrote a letter to the chairman of the redistricting committee, urging the committee to keep Memphis in one congressional district.

“Being a lifelong Memphian and representing the 9th Congressional District since 2007, I believe that my community and constituents would be best served by remaining in a geographically contiguous, compact district that respects the community of interest and political boundaries of the City of Memphis,” Cohen said. " I have heard this desire express directly from my constituents often and consistently. As a major city, Memphis is a highly interconnected community that is best served when its citizens are treated and function as such.”

Monday, Tennessee Democrats unveiled their updated plan for redistricting at the congressional level.

It reduces the number of split counties to eight, makes district populations more equal, and creates a district in Middle Tennessee for voters who belong to a minority group.

Republicans are expected to release their congressional redistricting plan later this week.

A redistricting committee meeting will be held Wednesday.

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