New Congressional and State Districts have been drawn in states throughout the country, based on the 2020 Census, and many are now being disputed in the courts. County Districts are currently being redrawn. Who cares? We should all care!
Changes to district maps can alter the balance of power in Congress and in the states. The new maps last for ten years. They can give one party an unfair advantage — in every county and state nationwide. Redistricting can contribute to political polarization by making elections less competitive. This year, redrawing of maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress.
Redistricting is the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional, state and local legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population. Over time, districts gain or lose population. Voters in districts with increased population would, as a result, have less of a say than voters in lightly populated districts if new maps were not drawn periodically to keep districts roughly even.
Although there are good reasons for redistricting, it is an intensely political process and can affect the fairness of elections. Lines can be (and often are) redrawn to favor one party or the other, to protect incumbents, or to help — or harm — a specific demographic group. Abuse of the system is responsible for a plethora of political problems, especially Understanding redistricting is essential to understanding just how much a vote actually counts.
Redistricting begins with reapportionment, which determines how many seats in Congress each state will get and what changes occur in the distribution of seats in state, county and local districts, based on the results of the census.
Map makers work to make sure that each district has roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation. This requires moving the borders of districts — or adding new districts and subtracting old ones to achieve population parity.
To insure equitable representation there are specific rules.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 forbids “dilution” of the votes of people of color: Maps may not be drawn to limit such voters’ ability to elect their own representatives.
Many states and localities have additional criteria:
keeping districts geographically contiguous and compact, ensuring that elections will be competitive, or safeguarding partisan “fairness” so districts reflect statewide voting trends rather than giving one political party an unearned advantage.
Each state has its own process for drawing Congressional maps. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. Most — 39 states — have state legislators draw the new Congressional maps. Six states have only one House seat, thus no congressional districts to draw. When state legislators draw their own districts, they tend to be biased. This is one way redistricting becomes politicized.
Partisan mapmakers often move district lines to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal, like helping their party or increasing an incumbent’s chances of re-election. This allows political parties to choose their voters, and tends to leave a legislature with a partisan slant that doesn’t represent the statewide political balance.
Gerrymandering is the intentional distortion of a map of political districts to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make significant decisions on how to draw the boundaries and how to group voters in districts to create a partisan slant. The two methods of gerrymandering used most often are “cracking” and “packing.”
Cracking is when mapmakers break up a cluster of a certain type of voters — people from a specific demographic group or affiliated with the opposing party — and spread them among several districts, thereby diluting their vote. This is a common tactic in densely populated areas. It is sometimes described as “pizza slicing,” as if the city were the center of a pizza cut up narrowly at the urban core along lines radiating outward.
Packing is when maps are drawn to cram members of a demographic group, like Black voters, or voters in the opposing political party, into one district or as few districts as possible. That leaves their numbers in the other districts too scant to win elections. This is how many states, primarily in the South, sought to limit the influence of Black voters over the decades before the Voting Rights Act. In the 2020 election, Democratic votes in Austin Texas were cracked into multiple districts reaching into conservative areas. There are about 435,000 Democratic voters in Travis County, and only about 160,000 Republicans — but just one Democratic representative. There are other tricks used as well.
Gerrymandering makes elections less fair. A mapmakers’ party can seize such an advantage that the results of elections become foregone conclusions.
Is this legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering. Districts where people of color are in the majority are often referred to as VRA districts and breaking them up is almost certain to cause a lawsuit. States have often been forced to redraw maps found to have violated the Voting Rights Act or the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Pennsylvania had to redraw its congressional maps in 2018; Texas has had to redraw some of its maps every decade since the Voting Rights Act was passed. Some lower courts have held that gerrymandering that dilutes the vote of a minority group is unconstitutional regardless of intent, but the argument remains in a legal gray area.
Incumbents tend to like this way of doing things. Holding on to their jobs and political power is easier when they don’t have to worry about tough challenges from the other party. But in some of the safest districts lawmakers are finding great challenges in primary campaigns. In those contests, the most devoted partisans are often the most important constituency and appealing to them is pushing incumbents and primary challengers to political fringes. Thus, gerrymandering is fueling much of the polarization and extremism in American politics.
The timetable this year is unique. Because of delays in the census there was a scramble in drawing new districts, making it difficult for potential candidates to make timely decisions on whether to run. This is also the first redistricting cycle without the protection under the Voting Rights Act known as “preclearance.” For many years, states with a history of voting discrimination were required to get federal approval before changing their voting laws or drawing new districts. In 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated the VRA, leaving lawmakers free to draw maps as they choose. New maps could, of course, face legal challenges, but challenges take time, and often fail.
Conditions are most ripe when one party controls both of a state’s legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Republicans have complete control over the redistricting process in 20 states, Democrats in 10 states. That gives Republicans unimpeded power to draw 187 House districts, and Democrats 84. Democrats are most concerned about potential Republican gerrymanders in Ohio, Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Republicans are most concerned about Democratic gerrymanders in New York, Illinois, Oregon and Maryland.
The easy answer is to have independent panels everywhere. But there is wide disagreement over how different factors should be weighted, like geographic continuity, competitiveness, minority representation and partisan fairness.
Nassau County Congressional District Maps 2012 vs 2022