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7 Things to Know About Redistricting

Seven common questions and answers about redistricting.

July 3, 2017

In 2018, Amer­ic­ans across the coun­try will go to the polls to vote for their congres­sional repres­ent­at­ives. Most states will also elect their state legis­lature. The choices that voters have will depend on the district lines that were drawn in a process called redis­trict­ing.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is redis­trict­ing?

Members of Congress, state legis­lat­ors, and many county and muni­cipal offices are elec­ted by voters grouped into districts. But popu­la­tions change. Some districts gain resid­ents, others lose them. Districts also may change demo­graph­ic­ally. That’s why district bound­ar­ies are redrawn every ten years to ensure each district has about the same number of people and that districts are reflect­ive and repres­ent­at­ive of the elect­or­ate.

Who draws the lines?

Each state decides. In most states, the state legis­lature draws lines both for the legis­lature and for the state’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion. Typic­ally, the governor can veto a map.

To assist in the process, some states have special commis­sions that advise legis­lat­ors on draw­ing the map, or that serve as backup mapmakers if the legis­lature dead­locks.

And a grow­ing number of states have inde­pend­ent commis­sions where ordin­ary citizens rather than politi­cians draw districts.

Why does redis­trict­ing matter?

Redis­trict­ing affects polit­ical power. It determ­ines which party controls Congress and state and local govern­ments across the coun­try. Consequently, redis­trict­ing has a direct bear­ing on what matters a legis­lature chooses to tackle, and which to ignore. 

Redis­trict­ing also affects whether the nation’s diverse communit­ies are repres­en­ted in its legis­lat­ive bodies. Redis­trict­ing, for example, can ensure that communit­ies of color have a fair shot at elect­ing candid­ates who repres­ent their world­view and will fight for their concerns. Or it can exclude them from having a seat at the table. Ditto all other kinds of communit­ies of interest.

How should the lines be drawn?

A good redis­trict­ing process should help a community secure mean­ing­ful repres­ent­a­tion. Many states consider “communit­ies of interest” when draw­ing their districts and that’s a good place to start. Community of interest is 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.

In most states, the legis­lature is respons­ible for draw­ing elect­oral bound­ar­ies. But this process can go awry and result in gerry­man­der­ing. One polit­ical party, for example, may use its unilat­eral abil­ity to pass a map to lock in a dispro­por­tion­ate share of seats. A differ­ent kind of gerry­man­der­ing also can take place when maps are drawn in a way that disad­vant­ages racial or ethnic minor­it­ies.

Unfor­tu­nately, the United States is unique among developed demo­cra­cies in leav­ing the power to draw maps, by and large, in the hands of inter­ested politi­cians.  As a result, it’s prob­ably not surpris­ing that maps still are not final in more than half a dozen states because of pending litig­a­tion over gerry­man­der­ing alleg­a­tions. 

How does gerry­man­der­ing affect demo­cracy?

John Adams and the Framers of the Consti­tu­tion thought that legis­lat­ive bodies should be “an exact Portrait, a Mini­ature, of the People at large.” Redis­trict­ing allows districts to be rebal­anced, ensur­ing to the greatest extent possible that all districts are both equally popu­lated and repres­ent­at­ive.

Gerry­man­der­ing, on the other hand, distorts repres­ent­a­tion. In some states this decade, gerry­mandered maps have allowed a polit­ical party to entrench its major­ity despite receiv­ing a minor­ity of the votes, and thus creat­ing an envir­on­ment in which the major­ity of voters may not see their preferred policies enacted. Gerry­man­der­ing affects what laws are created, which communit­ies receive mean­ing­ful repres­ent­a­tion, and which party can win elec­tions.  An analysis of congres­sional districts drawn during the last redis­trict­ing cycle in 2011 found that the maps were consist­ently biased in favor of Repub­lic­ans as a result of gerry­man­der­ing. This has resul­ted in Repub­lic­ans having a 13 to 5 advant­age in Pennsylvani­a’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion despite the fact that the state is the quint­es­sen­tial battle­ground state. Similar distor­tions have been built into maps at the state and local level. Some­times Repub­lic­ans are to blame. In other cases, Demo­crats were the gerry­man­der­ers. At the end of the day, it’s about more than polit­ical power. When district lines are drawn to favor or disad­vant­age a polit­ical party, mean­ing­ful repres­ent­a­tion is comprom­ised and community interests are sacri­ficed to the partisan goals of polit­ical parties.

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. Parti­cip­ate in community mapping exer­cises where citizens get together and jointly work on proposed solu­tions.  Help change the process. Lawmakers and advocacy and grass­roots organ­iz­a­tions will propose redis­trict­ing reform meas­ures in the next few years. 

Revised July 3, 2017

(Photo: AP)