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The Redistricting Landscape, 2021–22

Summary: Political, legal, and demographic changes, along with census delays, will shape the fight for fair maps and representation.

Published: February 11, 2021
Redistricting Landscape 2021 Illustration
Julie Gueraseva/Getty

Under the best of circum­stances, the redraw­ing of legis­lat­ive and congres­sional districts every 10 years is a fraught and abuse-prone process. But the next round of redis­trict­ing in 2021 and 2022 will be the most chal­len­ging in recent history. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, intense fights over repres­ent­a­tion and fair maps were all but certain in many states due to rapid demo­graphic change and a weak­en­ing of the legal frame­work govern­ing redis­trict­ing. Invari­ably, communit­ies of color would bear much of the brunt, facing outright discrim­in­a­tion in some places and being used as a conveni­ent tool for achiev­ing unfair partisan advant­age in others.

Covid-19, however, has further upen­ded the redis­trict­ing cycle by delay­ing the release of data needed by states to draw maps, and in turn delay­ing redis­trict­ing.

This report looks at the upcom­ing redis­trict­ing cycle through the lens of four factors that will influ­ence outcomes in each state: who controls map draw­ing; changes in the legal rules govern­ing redis­trict­ing over the last decade; pres­sures from popu­la­tion and demo­graphic shifts over the same period; and the poten­tial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the 2020 Census. In each state, the conflu­ence of these factors will determ­ine the risk of manip­u­lated maps or whether, conversely, the redis­trict­ing process will produce maps that reflect what voters want, respond to shifts in public opin­ion, and protect the rights of communit­ies of color.

Expect a tale of two coun­tries. In much of the coun­try, newly enacted reforms and divided govern­ment will make it harder to force through partisan gerry­manders or racially discrim­in­at­ory maps. In other states, however, there may be even greater room for unfair processes and results than in 2011, when the nation saw some of the most gerry­mandered and racially discrim­in­at­ory maps in its history.

High­lights: What’s New in 2021–22?

  • Polit­ical changes and reforms: Single-party control of map draw­ing is by far the biggest predictor of redis­trict­ing abuses. For the next round of redis­trict­ing, the good news is that single-party control has decreased due to a combin­a­tion of reforms and elec­tions that have resul­ted in divided govern­ment. In total, six states have adop­ted redis­trict­ing reforms that will be used in the upcom­ing redis­trict­ing cycle, includ­ing Virginia in Novem­ber 2020. Mean­while, several other states where maps are still drawn by legis­latures and that saw egre­gious gerry­man­der­ing last cycle now have divided govern­ments. Lawmakers in these states must now comprom­ise or forfeit their map draw­ing author­ity to the courts — where the like­li­hood of fair maps is much higher. The impact of these changes is espe­cially notable at the congres­sional level: in the upcom­ing cycle, Repub­lic­ans will have sole control over the draw­ing of just 181 congres­sional districts, compared with 213 districts after the 2010 elec­tions. (The exact number of seats could change slightly depend­ing on the results of the 2020 Census.)
  • Legal changes: The legal land­scape, by contrast, is more omin­ous this time around. Map draw­ing in 2021–22 will take place with a legal frame­work weakened by two major Supreme Court rulings. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted core protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. Then, in 2019, the Court closed the door to federal court chal­lenges to partisan gerry­manders in Rucho v. Common Cause. But there is also hope­ful news. The last decade saw new juris­pru­den­tial fronts open with wins against partisan gerry­man­der­ing in two state courts, suggest­ing that state consti­tu­tions could emerge as an altern­at­ive route to chal­lenge gerry­man­der­ing in the 2021–22 cycle.
  • Demo­graphic and popu­la­tion changes: As has always been the case, popu­la­tion changes will be a crucial driver of redis­trict­ing abuses. The South in partic­u­lar has grown rapidly and become both much more racially and polit­ic­ally diverse since 2011, threat­en­ing the long-stand­ing polit­ical status quo. Simil­arly, some regions have seen popu­la­tion decreases or signi­fic­ant demo­graphic changes and could also see battles over adjust­ments to maps. But while some parts of the coun­try exper­i­enced major changes, large parts of the coun­try were remark­ably stable both in terms of demo­graph­ics and popu­la­tion change, lower­ing the redis­trict­ing stakes and in turn redu­cing the gerry­man­der­ing risk.
  • Census delays: As with so many areas of Amer­ican life, Covid-19 has also roiled the next round of redis­trict­ing, creat­ing uncer­tainty about when states will get the data they need to draw maps. Data deliv­ery being delayed until next summer (as the Census Bureau at one point sugges­ted) would cascade into delays to the map draw­ing process in many states — in some cases signi­fic­antly. A number of states, includ­ing Iowa and Maine, would have to make consti­tu­tional or legal changes to avoid the process default­ing to the courts. States like Texas would be required to draw maps in a special session, where there typic­ally are far fewer proced­ural protec­tions and over­sight oppor­tun­it­ies. And Virginia would likely not have new maps in place in time for its 2021 legis­lat­ive elec­tions.

States to Watch

Legend Notes

  • Highest-risk states: These states combine single-party polit­ical control of the redis­trict­ing process with extremely fast growth and demo­graphic change. Addi­tion­ally, for the first time in 50 years, they will not be required to obtain preapproval to use maps under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
  • Other high-risk states: These states, though they are not grow­ing or chan­ging demo­graph­ic­ally as fast as the highest-risk states, were formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and will also draw maps this decade under single-party control.
  • Likely improved states: These states adop­ted redis­trict­ing reforms in the last decade (though reforms could be chal­lenged or ignored in some places) or saw polit­ical changes that mean map draw­ing will no longer be under a single party’s control.
  • Other states to watch: These states saw signi­fic­ant nonwhite popu­la­tion growth in certain regions in the last decade and could see fights over increased repres­ent­a­tion demands for grow­ing communit­ies of color.

The Redis­trict­ing Land­scape… by The Bren­nan Center for Justice