7 Things to Know About Redistricting

October 28, 2013

The recent government shutdown and struggle over raising the debt ceiling were the result of many factors. Big money in politics, congressional dysfunction, and geographical self-sorting by like-minded voters all played a role. So did redistricting. For those unfamiliar with redistricting, below are some common questions and answers. Also see our Citizen's Guide to Redistricting.

What is redistricting?
Members of Congress, state legislators, and many county and municipal offices are elected by voters grouped into districts. At least once per decade, usually after a Census, district lines are redrawn, block by block. Populations change. Some districts gain residents, some lose them. Some districts increase the numbers of minorities, some districts lose them. District boundaries are redrawn to ensure each district has about the same number of people and to fulfill the constitutional guarantee that each voter has an equal say. Based on the 2010 census, each Congressional district has an average population of about 711,000, which is nearly a 10 percent increase from the 2000 census, when each district had an average of 647,000 people. In 2010, some states lost congressional seats and others gained them. For example, Texas gained four districts and New York lost two.

Who draws the lines?
Each state decides. In most states, the line drawers are politicians along with hired consultants. Often, state legislators draw the map, which the governor can veto. Some states have special commissions that advise legislators on drawing the map, or that serve as backup mapmakers if the legislature deadlocks. A few states have independent commissions so politicians and public officials cannot directly draw their own districts. Some states try to prevent a single political party from controlling the process. Some do not, providing one party a major advantage if it controls the state legislature. In other states, politicians from both parties simply work together to draw districts that often protect incumbents.

Why does redistricting matter?
Redistricting affects political power. It determines which party controls Congress and state and local governments across the country. Even when the population is divided equally, drawing the lines one way can reward Democrats and punish Republicans or vice versa. Some line-drawing can protect incumbents. Some line-drawing can guarantee they will face a potent challenger, either from their own party or the opposite party. Consequently, redistricting has a direct bearing on what matters a legislature chooses to tackle, and which to ignore. 

How should the lines be drawn?
A good redistricting process should help a community secure meaningful representation. Other than meeting the constitutional requirement that all votes should count equally, there is no magic formula. Many states consider “communities of interest” when drawing their districts. That’s just a term for groups of people who share common social, cultural, racial, economic, geographic, or other concerns. These groups are likely to have similar legislative interests as well, and that means they can benefit from common representation in the government. This goes much deeper than Republican or Democrat. A district of farmers, say, and a district of city dwellers will probably elect representatives that reflect differing histories, priorities, and aspirations. Other redistricting goals — like keeping a district compact or within county borders — are usually proxies for keeping communities intact. A good redistricting process will be open and transparent, allowing communities to ask questions and give input. This participation is important, since communities are the basic units of well-designed districts.

What is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering refers to the manipulation of district lines to protect or change political power. Any change in district lines affects politics. But a gerrymander is a deliberate and, according to opponents, unfair attempt to draw district lines to increase the likelihood of a particular political result. Incumbents, for example, have an incentive to create districts that are likely to re-elect them, sometimes dividing communities among one or more districts when a single district containing the entire community would better represent their interests.

Did redistricting affect the government shutdown?
Republicans gained 43 seats in the House of Representatives in the 2010 election and regained majority control, the largest swing in any midterm election since 1938. Many experts believe the newly-elected Republicans won their seats as a result of gerrymandering, which created districts with more conservative electorates. More than 50 House Republicans belong to the Tea Party Caucus, the main proponent of the government shutdown and the confrontation over the debt ceiling. This minority of the majority party drove many of the recent decisions regarding whether the House would consider legislation to continue funding the government. Some experts think these lawmakers were likely more willing to shut down the government because they did not fear being voted out of office. Others say gerrymandering did not have an effect because it actually reduces the number of extremely safe districts.

When is the next redistricting cycle, and what can you do now?
The next redistricting will be after the 2020 census. You can hold the line drawers accountable by paying attention and speaking up. Call your state legislators and tell them you want a fair redistricting process. Lawmakers will propose redistricting reform measures in the next few years. Track those developments and make your voice heard.