Once a decade after the census, every state redraws the districts used to elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislators – a process known as redistricting.
When drawing these lines, there are some requirements in federal law that all states must follow. For example, all states must ensure that districts have approximately the same number of people and comply with the Voting Rights Act. But in other areas, each state has discretion over how to draw its own lines, and, more importantly, over who will draw them – usually as stipulated in the state’s constitution.
Unfortunately, this discretion sometimes results in redistricting abuses. For example, while some states use processes that check partisan excess, others allow for legislators from a single party free rein to implement biased maps that keep their party in power through good election cycles and bad. This manipulation of maps is known as “gerrymandering.”
Redistricting also affects whether the nation’s diverse communities are represented in its legislative bodies. The way district lines are drawn can keep a community together or split it apart, and can change whether a community has representatives who feel responsible for its concerns. And just as maps can be manipulated for partisan gain, they can be manipulated to dilute the voice of or discriminate against communities of color.
These abuses are antithetical to the founding generation’s vision of American democracy. John Adams and the Framers of the Constitution thought legislative bodies should be “an exact Portrait, a Miniature, of the People at large.” In other words, redistricting is intended to ensure districts are reflective of the electorate.
You can use this guide to learn how redistricting is done in your state, or in other states. You also have a chance to influence the process by pushing for fair maps legislation or by participating in the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census.