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Research Report

A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting, 2010 Edition

  • Erika Wood
  • Justin Levitt
Published: November 29, 2010

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.