Author: allisonguzman

Making Progress, Maybe?

So, it’s been a while, in terms of how frequent my updates have been. I want to say that while I have made a ton of progress, the process of research is equivalent to hitting yourself in the face multiple times, each time expecting a different outcome other than pain.  I know — sounds brutal, huh? Why would anyone do this? I honestly have no clue. It is important to have research that you like. People say that for a reason. If it wasn’t for something I was not particularly passionate about, I would not be doing this, but the motivation that I am contributing to something important, as paramount as civil liberties guaranteed by our constitution, makes me continue to research, peruse, and seek out knowledge about this topic, even though it can be painstakingly frustrating.

In the past couple of months since my last blog post, I have written three chapters, albeit some a bit more coherent than others, and have made progress on my maps in Tableau, a data visualization tool that is able to show maps and the evolution of districts along with their respective demographics, with the help of two very gifted librarians, Sarah and Emma.

Granted thesis is independent work, but no one does it alone. I think that was, albeit a bit ironically, what I’ve learned and grown to understand in my thesis work. I would not be here without the help of Geoff, my advisor, Emma and Sarah, the best of the best CMU librarians, Karen, the Pitt Law librarian, my mom — wow, this turned into an Oscar speech real quick. Anyways, the acknowledgment section of the thesis is going to be interesting, and also the rest of the thesis, the thing I set out to do, about gerrymandering and minority-majority districts, and ensuring the constitutional right to free and fair elections where one person is entitled to one fair vote. Now, to go back to proofreading these chapters!

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Wrapping Up the Summer

redistricting timeline

As my final blog post, I wanted to share sort of a brief recap of what my summer work was. Mainly, it was a lot of reading—sifting through different court cases and establishing a legal timeline for what policies changed when and how partisan gerrymandering evolved into a different entity than racial gerrymandering.

In a nutshell, the Supreme Court first decided to hear cases dealing with apportionment in Baker v. Carr. This case opened the doorway to different kinds of questions appellants could ask the judicial branch of the United States where the law was not necessarily so clear. It wasn’t until later in Reynolds v. Sims where the Supreme Court ruled that districts should be apportioned by equal population. This enforced the “one person, one vote” doctrine, as this would mathematically ensure that no vote in one district was more important, or weighed more, than someone else’s vote in another district. This case also used the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th amendment as the legal basis for equal apportionment. the goal was to make sure everyone’s voice was equally effective.

Now, if everyone’s voice should be equally effective, should race be a factor? In a case called Gomillion v. Lightfoot, African Americans were boxed out of their own city after it redistricted the outer areas outside of the city’s boundaries. This denied African Americans the right to their municipal vote, which resulted in a violation of their equal protection. From this, race was thought to be a factor in that a person could not be excluded from voting, simply because of their race.

In a later court case, Shaw v. Reno, North Carolina had to apportion an additional seat due to an influx of people— in the early 1990s, Charlotte was predicted to be the next New York City, the Big BBQ as they called it. The state legislature created districts that were minority-majority meaning that they essentially isolated the racial minorities of the population and apportioned them into districts solely because of race. The Supreme Court struck these districts down, claiming that while race may be a factor, it may not be the only factor.

So that begs the question, what counts as a minority? Can partisanship be discriminatory, and would those discriminations fall under the Equal Protection Clause? Well, Davis v. Bandemer answered that question—I mean, sort of. The Supreme Court took the case, which inadvertently meant that this was a question the Court could answer, meaning that it wasn’t too much of a political question that the Court would not take it.

This stance was later obfuscated in later rulings like LULAC v. Perry, where the Texas state legislature redistricted for partisan reasons while simultaneously diluting the Latino vote. The Supreme Court ruled that these districts were in violation of the VRA, an act that protected minorities from having their votes diluted or cast out, and did not violate anything constitutionally on the grounds of partisanship. Cases like this make partisanship gerrymandering a grey area compared to racial gerrymandering. I hope to take a deeper look into Pennsylvania and Texas rulings to see how both states frame gerrymandering within their courts. That will be the focus of my work in the fall.

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Embracing the Confusion

As one of my last summers in Pittsburgh, I can’t help but grow nostalgic about all the things that I’ve come to love in this city. Namely, the tacos, the view from Flagstaff Hill, and the occasional (emphasis on occasional) pierogi. This summer has brought much-needed guidance and unknowing to my project, much of which is incredibly helpful! In a meeting with Dr. Keating, I actually said, “It’s interesting. I feel like the more I know, the less I actually feel like I know. Now, I know that I did this part of the project incorrectly. But, at least, I figured out that the project was done wrong?”

It’s funny—I look at this thesis as a completely different challenge. When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with perfection. If I didn’t like a drawing, I would rip the paper to shreds and start again. With this amount of research, it’s almost impossible to rip it to shreds and start anew. Every mistake and imperfection in what I do for this project leads me towards a different direction with this project. Now, I feel like every tangential occurrence feeds this project, as opposed to veers away from what it’s supposed to do.

In a sense, while I can’t rip up this project to tiny, tiny pieces (even though I want to) it has already taught me the importance of realizing that part of the journey is making mistakes. They contribute to the project just as much as the successful accomplishments. Doing parts of the project over further engrain the ideas and theories into my head, which is helpful.

And as for the element of not knowing, I mean, I’ve read about election law for two months. If the solution was apparent, I wouldn’t have a topic for a thesis. So in a way, I’m thankful for the lack of consensus between state and federal government on redistricting law. That comment might have crossed the line (redistricting pun), but I went into this project thinking that law could not be partisan. The law is the law, and theoretically, should be unbiased. Well, boy have I learned something. The law is a mysterious, politically motivated, illogical entity weaving its way through exceptions and loopholes. I don’t know enough about it, but it has been both insightful and inciteful to go on this year-long endeavor to learn more about it.

Election Law 101

In the last week, I have been doing the background research on my thesis. This entails getting up to speed on election law in general, which is more time consuming than I originally thought. To gain a sort of base knowledge in this subject matter, I have been reading a lot of case law and legislation that protects the representation of others.  This method, which my thesis advisor, Dr. McGovern, referred to as the “soak and poke” approach has allowed me to immerse myself in the relevant literature. While it has been a bit trying at times to read books and books on solely just context, I know more about gerrymandering in more depth than I imagined I ever would.

Reading about these old cases that changed and affected the representation of voters, like Baker v. Carr, Shaw v. Reno, and many others has given me a good legislative background on how the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has affected our government. Doing so much reading on election law, while usually riveting, has its daily challenges.

Sometimes, I felt a bit removed from my actual project, because of how dense the reading is and how long ago these cases all seem. Essentially, some days it is increasingly difficult to stay motivated. I looked back fondly on memories of submitting the honors thesis application, the rush of having an idea, and the thrill of having that very idea approved. Granted, I still am very much psyched to be working on my own project, but as I’ve gotten acclimated to the work, I am filled with less joy. Needless to say, the passionate flame of excitement I felt for my thesis has definitely dulled. In the more recent days, it has adopted an enduring, warm glow.

This week, I felt an influx of both excitement and dread. The Supreme Court released their rulings on their most recent gerrymandering cases. Given that the Court has more conservative justices and Justice Ginsberg was wearing her dissenting collar, the outlook was not good.  The Supreme Court ruled on Abbott v. Perez, a racial gerrymander court case that I am using for my thesis. Out of the districts that the plaintiffs took issue with, all but one of them were considered acceptable districts that did not racially gerrymander.  This came as a surprise to me, as the district maps had not looked compact or shown characteristics of contiguity. Fortunately, I can only hope that my research will provide further explanation as to why individuals should have an equal amount of representation.

Ideas for an Honors Thesis

Originally, I knew I wanted to an honors thesis—I just wasn’t sure what on. I knew that I wanted to do it on something I was passionate about and I knew it had to be on a political issue. I spent the spring semester of my junior year in Washington, D.C.  working for the office of Senator Bob Casey where I was exposed to the news daily. This further influenced my need to have a political influence in my thesis. I also wanted to have something that would be relevant to Pennsylvania. At my internship, learning about the different state issues made me more knowledgeable and more interested in the political environment in Pennsylvania.

Even so, I was uncertain on the topic. Because of this and the honors thesis deadline approaching, I met with Dr. Jay Devine and had an honest and open discussion with what I was interested in, my future plans, and what I wanted to accomplish with my thesis. I brought up two issues that I was very passionate about: immigration and the application of the U.S. Constitution.  While the former was interesting to me, I did not want to create a research project that was too personal to me, as I felt that it might generate more emotions than research. In the scope of my latter interests, Dr. Devine suggested the redistricting case going to the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As I was already in a Pennsylvania government office, I had heard of the issue and followed it closely. After the court handed down the ruling and gave the state a period of time to establish fair districts under the condition that should the state not enact new lines. Because Pennsylvania officials did not change the district lines within the deadline, the Supreme Court established them for the state with the help of redistricting experts. This was interesting to me as that had never happened before and was the effect of the state attempting to create a timely and effective solution for its voters.

I continued to follow the Supreme Court cases and found out that a redistricting case from Texas, Abbott v. Perez, was on this year’s docket. This case was particularly different because it focused on race rather than partisanship. I was confused as to why the Supreme Court chose to take this case but did follow through with the case in Pennsylvania. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects against racial discrimination but does not specifically protect discrimination against minority parties. This difference helped me figure out what I wanted to research. It also helped that both of these places take part in areas that I have lived and continue to call home. Being able to research and contribute to these two places makes me more motivated to continue this process and see this research through.