Political redistricting to determine party control: What is the best way to redraw political districts? What’s the fairest way? And who should decide?
Every ten years a new census is conducted to track changes in the population of the United States. States then use the most recent US Census report to redraw the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts.
New Jersey just recently finished finalizing the redrawing of these district maps. Every time districts are redrawn, a fierce political debate sparks, and often one party is left at a disadvantage in upcoming elections.
The above graphic shows three different ways of drawing districts maps in a hypothetical state with 25 voters. The map shows examples of “gerrymandering,” the intentional distortion of a map of political districts to give an advantage to one party over the other.
Fair voting maps allow voters to elect representatives in proportion to their number. Aiming for “fair voting maps,” every ten years, these maps are redrawn based on the most recent census information. In theory, each district is supposed to be redrawn to optimize fairness in the voting process and evenly distribute the population across districts while limiting drastic changes. However, it is virtually impossible to eliminate politics from the redistricting process.
Ultimately, political redistricting determines how much weight your vote holds. Changes in district maps can alter the balance of power in Congress and the state legislature. New district maps last for a decade and often give one party an unfair advantage. Continually, redistricting contributes to political polarization by making elections less competitive.
As districts gain or lose population over time voting power fluctuates. A voter in a district with a larger population has less say than a voter in a sparsely populated district.
In theory, redistricting doesn’t sound terrible. However, in reality, the process is highly politicized. District lines are redrawn to favor one party over another, to protect incumbent elected officials, or to help – or harm – a specific demographic group.
So, once the census is released dictating the number of seats in Congress and the House of Representatives – a process known as reapportionment, mapmakers then work to redraw congressional districts to have roughly the same number of residents. This often requires moving borders of districts, adding new districts, or subtracting old ones to achieve population parity.
“The landmark Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in voting and ushered in a host of new protections. Racial gerrymandering was forbidden, and states with a history of discrimination at the polls had to get clearance from the Justice Department before changing voting laws or drawing new maps.” – Voting Rights Act of 1965
So, who draws the maps?
Each state has its own process. Eleven states use an outside panel to draw political districts, 39 states have lawmakers draw new maps for Congress, and six states have only one House seat, so they have no congressional district to draw.
State legislators can draw their own maps in many cases – 39 states. As a result, redistricting becomes a highly politicized process. Partisan mapmakers will often move district lines to group voters in ways that advance a political goal, like aiding an incumbent in reelection.
This allows the political party to essentially choose its voters, rather than the voters choosing their representatives. This often leaves a legislature with a partisan slant that does not represent the statewide political balance.
For example, take a look at Wisconsin’s 2018 election results:
In 2018, former Governor Scott Walker, Republican, lost by a margin of just one percentage point, but republicans still won 63 of the 99 State Assembly districts.
There are two methods of gerrymandering used most often: “cracking” and “packing.”
Cracking is when mapmakers break up voters from specific demographic groups, or voters affiliated with the opposing party, and spread them among several districts, diluting their vote rather than allowing them to exert a larger influence in fewer or even a single district.
Above you can see how the “Blue” voters were broken up into different districts giving “Red” voters the advantage.
Packing is the process of redrawing maps to cram voters of certain demographic groups or voters of the opposing party into as few districts as possible. This process often leaves the numbers of opposing political groups in other districts too scant to win elections. Packing is often how many states, primarily in the South, sought to limit the influence of Black voters before the introduction of the Voting Rights Act.
Rather than “cracking” “Red” voters, the “Blue” party packs as many “Red” voters into one district as possible. The Blue party then secures four “safe” seats, leaving the Red party with only one.
Take a look at Austin, Texas, the only US city with less than a million residents that was divided into six congressional districts.
Here’s how people in Austin, TX voted by area in the recent 2020 presidential election:
Now here’s the 2011 District Map for Austin, TX:
In the 2020 election, Democratic votes in Austin, Texas were cracked into multiple districts. There are about 435,000 Democratic voters in Travis County, and only around 160,000 Republicans – but just one Democratic representative.
After decades of “cracking” Austin, the Democratic vote began to grow too large to dilute it in surrounding rural areas. Thus, post-2020 census, Republican legislators began to change their strategy.
Republicans drew a new district, district 37, that was 75 percent Democratic, consolidating Democratic voters and preserving the Republican tilt of surrounding districts.
Democratic voters were packed into one, newly created district to create an island of blue among heavily Republican districts.
So, what does this mean for elections?
It means elections are “less fair.” Mapmakers can redraw their districts, essentially picking and choosing their voters. Take North Carolina as an example.
In 2012, Democrats won 50.6% of the popular vote but obtained only four of the available 13 House seats. Federal courts eventually forced the state of North Carolina to redraw district maps – twice.
Is this illegal?
In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in Rucho V. Common Cause that federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders.
The court did leave intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits racial or ethnic gerrymandering. States have had to redraw their maps that were found to have violated the Voting Rights Act or the equal protection clause of the constitution.
“After a long court battle over North Carolina’s maps, the Supreme Court found that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” though it said nothing about the state courts. Racial gerrymandering, prohibited by the Voting Rights Act, remained illegal.” – Rucho vs. Common Cause, 2019
Pennsylvania redrew congressional maps in 2018 after it was found that district maps violated the Voting Rights Act. Texas has had to redraw some of its district maps every decade since the passage of the Voting Rights Act due to violations.
There is protection, but mapmakers can get around the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Mapmakers could insist that a racial gerrymander was merely a partisan gerrymander if the racial group in question voted predominantly for one party over the other. So, while there are protections, there are also loopholes.
Take Georgia for example. Black voters in Georgia make up nearly one-third of the voting population in the state and 88 percent of them voted for President Biden. Republicans in Georgia could try and “crack” or “pack” Black districts and argue their intent is partisan, not racist.
There are some courts that have held that gerrymandering that dilutes the votes of a minority group is unconstitutional regardless of intent, but this is a legal grey area.
Why do we do it this way?
Well, first of all, incumbents appreciate this backward and flawed process because it makes it easier to hold their political position/job.
But, the result is that gerrymandering fuels much of the political polarization and extremism in American politics.
This most recent redistricting year was different…
For a whole slew of reasons, the most recent redistricting was very different from all previous years. First, delays in the census, caused in part by the pandemic, cause a frantic scramble to redraw districts and made it difficult for incumbents and challengers to make decisions on whether to run for office.
This most recent redistricting was also the first time the process was without protection under the Voting Rights Act – known as “preclearance.” For decades, states with a history of voting discrimination had to get federal approval before changing or redrawing districts.
In 2013, the Supreme Court changed the preclearance provision to allow lawmakers in those states to redraw maps as they choose. New maps could face legal challenges, but those challenges take time and often fail.
Where is gerrymandering a concern?
Republicans have control over the redistricting process in 20 states, Democrats have control in 10 states.
Democrats are most concerned about Republican gerrymanders in Ohio, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Republicans are most concerned about Democratic gerrymanders in New York, Illinois, Oregon, and Maryland.
Can we make the process fairer?
Sure. The best option seems to be independent panels in every state to decide and redraw districts based on census information. However, there is disagreement over how to weigh different factors of the redistricting process – like geographic continuity, competitiveness, minority representation, and partisan fairness.
How do Independent Redistricting Panels work?
All independent panels are not equal. Some are made up of equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Others feature a nonpartisan chair as a tiebreaker. But all truly independent panels operate outside the legislature’s influence, at least mitigating bias in favor of incumbents.
Democrats in Congress sought through the For the People Act, an omnibus voting bill that failed in 2021, to require independent redistricting panels for every state. Current proposals for independent state redistricting panels include banning partisan gerrymandering altogether and giving courts greater power to intervene. However, any such changes require Democrats to overcome a Republican filibuster.
What can we (the voters) do?
Statewide elections for the Senate, Governor, and State Legislature determine who controls redistricting. These little-watched elections in between presidential races can heavily influence your state’s redistricting process every ten years. The redistricting process itself can be changed by a ballot initiative, which often takes copious amounts of time and money to organize and pass.
If you don’t like the way lawmakers are drawing your state's districts, go to a public hearing and give mapmakers a piece of your mind.