A Citizen's Guide to Redistricting
Just in time for the upcoming redistricting cycle, our Citizen's Guide to Redistricting has been updated and expanded to include recent court decisions as well as the latest changes to state and congressional redistricting processes across the country. This Guide will provide engaged citizens with the knowledge and tools they need to get involved with this round of redistricting, and to work towards continuing reform in the decades to come.
Why does redistricting matter? Our representatives in local, state, and federal government set the rules by which we live. In ways large and small, they affect the taxes we pay, the food we eat, the air we breathe, the ways in which we make each other safer and more secure. Periodically, we hold elections to make sure that these representatives continue to listen to us. All of our legislators in state government, many of our legislators in local government, and most of our legislators in Congress are elected from districts, which divide a state and its voters into geographical territories. In most of these districts, all of the voters are ultimately represented by the candidate who wins the most votes in the district. The way that voters are grouped into districts therefore has an enormous influence on who our representatives are, and what policies they fight for. For example, a district composed mostly of farmers is likely to elect a representative who will fight for farmers’ interests, but a district composed mostly of city dwellers may elect a representative with different priorities. Similarly, districts drawn with large populations of the same race, or ethnicity, or language, or political party are more likely to elect representatives with the same characteristics.
Every so often, a state’s district lines—for both Congress and the state legislature—are redrawn, grouping different sets of voters together in new ways. Sometimes, the way that a particular district is redrawn directly affects who can win the next election. And together, the way that the districts are redrawn can affect the composition of the legislative delegation or legislature as a whole. Many believe that we would have different representatives, federal and state, if the district lines were drawn differently.
In addition to affecting large political trends, the way that district lines are drawn can have very specific consequences. For instance, in some cases, new lines may be redrawn to leave an incumbent’s house out of the district she used to represent, making it difficult or impossible for her to run for re-election to represent most of her old constituents unless she moves. Other times, lines may be drawn to include the homes of two incumbents in the same party, forcing them to run against each other or retire, and in either case, knocking one of them out of the legislature. Often, sitting legislators from the party controlling the legislature are also in control of drawing new lines, leaving them free to target challengers, or legislators from an opposing party.
Occasionally, the process of redrawing district lines gets a lot of attention. In 2003, there was a big controversy in Texas; one party tried to redraw the district lines for Congress after a court had already redrawn the lines just a few years before, and legislators in the other party actually fled the state—twice—to try to stop the redrawing.
More often, this “redistricting” gets much less attention in the press. But even when it does not make the front page, it is extremely important in determining which communities are represented and how vigorously—which is in turn extremely important to determining which laws get made.
There are many different ways to figure out which voters are grouped together to elect a representative. Whether the way that districts are currently drawn in any given state is good or bad depends on what you believe the goals of the process to be. Some stress objectivity; some independence; some transparency, or equality, or regularity, or other goals entirely. There is ample debate among scholars, activists, and practitioners about the role of political insiders, the nature of protection for minority rights, the degree of partisan competition or partisan inequity, and the ability to preserve established or burgeoning communities. But to date, this discussion has been inaccessible to most of the people directly affected.
This publication is intended to present the redistricting process for state and federal government, and for many local governments, in digestible parts. There are many moving components, complex issues that we attempt to describe in simple and straightforward fashion, piece by piece. This is a guide for the rules for drawing district lines—a description of how it works today, how it could work in the future, and what it all means. Consider it an owners' manual, for those who should own the process: we, the people.
About the Brennan Center's Redistricting Project
The Brennan Center is a leader in the fight for just and equitable redistricting procedures across the country. We counsel advocates, legislators and community groups across the country on how best to maximize the goals of diversity, accountability, and fairness through redistricting reform. Building on our extensive nationwide study of redistricting practices and reform initiatives, we offer legislative testimony, help draft legislation and work to educate the public to shape and advance the reform agenda. We have also filed friend-of-the-court briefs in many of the major cases addressing the use of redistricting for undue partisan gain or at the expense of minority voters.
Our publications and public advocacy have amplified the values of redistricting reform: counting the population and redrawing the district lines in a way that is equitable, fair, and sensitive to diversity. In anticipation of the round of redistricting following the 2000 Census, the Brennan Center offered The Real Y2K Problem, an accessible analysis of the technical and legal issues facing legislators and reform advocates in redrawing the nation’s legislative and congressional districts. Our publication Beyond the Color Line? focuses on the ramifications of redistricting, and the litigation that often results, for race and representation. We have created a variety of public education materials and presentations, as well as numerous articles and opinion pieces detailing the promises and challenges of redistricting in the public interest.
About the Authors
Justin Levitt, associate professor of law at Loyola Law School – Los Angeles, was counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice from 2005 – 2008 and 2009 – 2010, with national expertise on redistricting, election administration, and other voting rights concerns. His work has included thorough research into the most pressing issues of election law and practice; publication of extensive studies and reports; assistance to federal and state administrative and legislative bodies with responsibility over elections; participation as amicus curiae in significant cases around the country; and litigation, when necessary, as counsel for parties seeking to compel states to comply with their obligations under federal law and the Constitution. He is the author or co-author of articles in both law reviews and peer-reviewed publications, and has also written many shorter commentaries for a more public audience. His Brennan Center monographs, including The Truth About Voter Fraud (2007) and Making the List (2006), have been cited extensively in national and local media, and recently, by the U.S. Supreme Court. Outside of the Brennan Center, in addition to work for a number of different civil rights and nonprofit voter engagement organizations, Mr. Levitt served as the National Voter Protection Counsel for a successful presidential campaign, and as in-house counsel to one of the nation’s largest voter registration and mobilization efforts.
Erika L. Wood is the Deputy Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. She directs the Right to Vote project as well as the Center’s Redistricting & Representation project. Ms. Wood has designed and launched major reform campaigns around the country and provides legal counsel and strategic guidance to advocates, legislators and policymakers nationwide. She created the Brennan Center Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Advisory Council as well as the Center’s Communities of Faith Initiative. Ms. Wood has authored several groundbreaking reports, numerous articles and legal briefs and is a frequent speaker and commentator on voting rights, criminal justice reform and racial justice issues. In 2009, Ms. Wood was awarded the Eric. R. Neisser Public Interest Award by Rutgers Law School in recognition of her efforts to carry forward the Law School’s mission of providing liberty and justice for all. Ms. Wood is an Adjunct Professor at NYU School of Law where she teaches the Brennan Center Public Policy Advocacy Clinic.