A Primer on Redistricting

We take a quick look at redistricting procedures and developments in some states leading up to the 2020 elections.

If you frequent this site, chances are you’re well aware of redistricting and why it’s important. But just in case

Redistricting is the process of establishing the boundaries of a legislative/electoral district every 10 years, after the decennial Census determines how many people live in each state. In other words, it’s the drawing of district lines so each represents the same proportion of the state’s population.

It’s up to the states to determine how these lines are drawn. Most have their state legislature draw up and vote on a new map in order to approve it, meaning whichever party is in power at the time has a big say in the district boundaries for the next decade.

State legislatures have been known to approve pretty bogus maps in the past. District boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts are sometimes drawn in order to give incumbents or parties an edge in upcoming elections, or gerrymandering. Sometimes you’ll see districts like these:

Source: Washington Post.

Essentially, gerrymandering is how members of legislative bodies choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to more appropriately choose their reps. You can’t really call a place a “representative democracy” when it lets stuff like this fly.

This is why redistricting is such a big deal: Every ten years is an opportunity to improve democracy, or for a party to further entrench its power and spite its voters. Let’s take a look at how different states draw their lines for congressional and state legislative districts, and why some measures work while others don’t.

Types of redistricting processes

Since we’re dealing with state laws, there are practically 50 different versions of the redistricting process. But generally, states pick one of two ways to create new maps: approval by the state legislature or approval by a separate body.

Most states rely on their legislatures to create maps for congressional and state legislative districts, though this is less the case for the latter. However, some states also convene commissions to help draw the maps—advisory commissions. These often gather public opinion to help inform decisions for new maps. They’re typically bipartisan. Additionally, a few states have backup commissions, which only step in if the legislature can’t agree on new maps.

Iowa, which does require its legislature to approve new maps, is unique from other states. It has an advisory commission made up of nonpartisan legislative aides. These aides draw the new districts lines while having no knowledge of incumbent address information. This is supposed to ensure the district map doesn’t favor current lawmakers. The National Conference of State Legislatures has the details here.

Other states convene independent commissions to draw district maps without input from the legislature. These commissions have their members appointed by state lawmakers and frequently have an equal number of members from either major party.

Some of these independent commissions have private citizens serve as members. A few states opt instead to include elected officials, what Ballotpedia calls politician commissions. Some states have their governors, secretaries of state, or other executive positions serve in these; others require appointments.

Critiques of redistricting processes

The most common criticisms of redistricting involve legislature-led processes, and that makes sense. When it comes to state legislative districts, it’s a pretty obvious conflict of interest to have current lawmakers decide which voters are within their districts. Plus, majority parties in a state’s general assembly might want to help their own representatives at the federal level.

Some of the states with the most gerrymandered districts “just happen” to have their legislatures oversee redistricting. Maryland, Florida, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan have districts with objectively ridiculous shapes. None of these states had an independent commission the last time districts were mapped. (Michigan changed this in 2018.)

This isn’t to say the alternative independent commissions are infallible. Most of these entities require a fair amount of input from legislatures on who exactly is appointed. Still, it seems far less likely that gerrymandered districts would happen when a bipartisan commission is overseeing redistricting.

A state-by-state breakdown

As mentioned earlier, this issue is important for congressional districts and state legislative districts. Let’s take a quick look at both categories with a pair of maps:

You can find a fullscreen version here and a table with more information here.

You can find a fullscreen version here and a table with more information here.

If you would like to see how states redistrict for both categories, click here.

Recent developments in the ‘Fair Maps’ movement

The “Fair Maps” movement, which champions redistricting reform, is present to some degree all states, but particularly those that lack an independent commission. Over the last few years, Fair Maps has seen some progress in addressing gerrymandering.

In Pennsylvania, the state’s congressional district map was replaced in 2018 because of how gerrymandered it was. What’s more, the state supreme court upheld changes to the map despite challenges from the Republican majority in the legislature. North Carolina saw a similar update to its own map last year, in time for the 2020 election cycle.

In both of these cases, Democratic power in the state was diluted thanks to gerrymandering. Before the 2018 elections, PA had 15 Republican congressman to the Democrats’ three despite there being more blue voters in the state over the last several years. Meanwhile, North Carolina has a 13-to-three split despite a similar electorate as Pennsylvania’s.

You’d be hard-pressed to call these representational delegations to Congress.

It’s hard to say how much will change in the near future. We can’t expect the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene the way PA’s did. We also don’t know if the hellish circumstances surrounding the 2020 Census will affect district apportionment in Congress and the states.

On the flip side, public opinion is strongly opposed to gerrymandering and there are opportunities for this to carry through. Seven states have ballot measures regarding redistricting for the 2020 elections (although it could have been eight states, PENNSYLVANIA), so there could be a few more independent commissions convened in time for redistricting in 2021.

Redistricting is one of the most important components of a functional democracy. States need to ensure congressional and state legislative districts reflect their constituents; considering the switch to independent commissions is one way to do this.

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Related reading:
  • The NCSL has pages on how states handle congressional and state legislative redistricting. They also have a handy briefing on when existing independent commissions were established.
  • Ballotpedia also has an extensive breakdown on redistricting by state, using NCSL information and providing more context.
  • The League of Women Voters has its “People Powered Fair Maps” initiative, with particular strategies for each state.
  • Campaign Legal Center put together a report that describes, among other things, how independent commissions should be structured.

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