Redistricting: An Explainer

Purple and yellow map of the U.S. with the text Redistricting: An Explainer.

What are the Census, Reapportionment, and Redistricting?

The Census

Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a constitutionally-mandated population count of the United States, which is known as the Census.

Reapportionment

Following this decennial population count, the results are used to reapportion and redistrict the nation’s political representation across the states. Reapportionment is the process for reallocating the number of seats for each state in the U.S. House of Representatives to reflect changes in population. Generally speaking, states with growing populations gain more seats (or representatives in Congress), and states with declining populations lose seats. Each state must have at least one seat in the House of Representatives, and after that, each district within the states must comprise a roughly equal number of people.

Redistricting

Census results are also used to create new legislative and congressional districts in each state to ensure proportional representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, and all the way down to local government bodies like school boards and city councils. This means that each member of Congress represents roughly the same number of people. This process is called redistricting, or redrawing of the nation’s political maps.

Additionally, census data is used to inform the distribution of more than $675 billion in annual federal funds to state and local governments. This funding is allocated to vital services, such as schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and job development and placement programs.

The potential political implications of these processes brings the census and subsequent redistricting process to the forefront of national debate every decade. Questions about how redistricting should be done, and who should be entrusted with doing it are often raised in an effort to lessen manipulation of the process that would favor a particular party. Across the United States, different states entrust different bodies to carry out the difficult — and, often controversial — task of redistricting each decade, including state legislatures, political commissions, and independent commissions. There are also varying levels of transparency and room for public input in the process.

Why is Redistricting Complicated?

In one word, politics. When the people in charge of the redistricting process have their own political interests at stake — like their reelection or maintaining their party’s majority — newly-drawn districts can be manipulated to favor a particular political party or to repress the political power of a racial or ethnic group, especially historically marginalized communities. And, these districts are in place for ten years until the next redistricting cycle. Many districts across the United States are gerrymandered, meaning that they have been drawn to benefit a certain political party.

Many states have taken different approaches to prevent or limit gerrymandering, but redistricting is inherently a political process. Context and community ties are important to protect historically marginalized groups and properly represent the communities in those districts. As a result, redistricting has become a balancing act between interests, and over time these different interests have led to a convoluted process with complex criteria for determining how districts can and should be drawn that varies state to state.

The Criteria

At its core, the goal of redistricting is to ensure proportional representation based on population to make sure everyone’s vote and interests count as equally as possible. The U.S. Constitution requires that Congressional districts be roughly equal in population, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits districts from being drawn in a way that discriminates on the basis of race.

Traditional requirements for redistricting, as compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, consider factors such as ensuring that districts make sense geographically (compact and contiguous districts); preserving political subdivisions like counties and cities; and preserving communities of interest that don’t necessarily overlap with political lines.

These considerations must be prioritized while not discriminating by race or intentionally favoring a specific incumbent. Further, in 1986, The Supreme Court ruled that majority-minority districts should be made where possible to avoid a dilution of power, but the ruling also stated that race cannot be used as the predominant factor or at the expense of other important considerations.

With so many criteria, priorities and factors, redistricting can quickly get complicated.

The Process

Historically, state legislatures have been responsible for redistricting, and they still are in many states. Alternatively, some states use independent commissions to redraw districts in an attempt to depoliticize the process and reduce or balance bias that legislators may have in favor of their own political party or their own reelection. Other states employ a hybrid model between the legislature and a commission that makes recommendations.

For many Americans, any political involvement in the redistricting process is seen as a conflict of interest, and this opinion is reflected in reform efforts taking place around the country. In a 2008 ballot initiative, California voters began the process of taking redistricting power away from their state legislature, and in 2011 the state’s districts were drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. In a show of momentum towards fairer redistricting, six states — Colorado, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Utah, and Virginia — have followed California and enacted redistricting reforms since the round of redistricting following the 2010 Census.

In the past, the public had little to no involvement in the redistricting process, but democratized access to computers and a wireless connection have since reversed that trend. Now, in many states, community-based organizations, colleges and universities, researchers, political organizations and groups and individuals can use free computer mapping programs to create and submit their own redistricting maps for consideration. This innovation allows for increased public involvement in the redistricting process and offers voters a more direct check on gerrymandering.

The Future of Redistricting

Redistricting reforms are continually advancing in states across the United States. Independent Commissions, greater protections for historically marginalized communities, and increased public transparency are strong steps toward ensuring that the redistricting process accurately structures our democracy such that it actually represents the interests of the people.

COVID-19, Census Delays, and Redistricting in 2021

Collection of census data concluded in October of 2020, but COVID-19 forced the federal government to extend the timeline on which apportionment and redistricting counts will be sent to states. The 2020 Census Data that is used for reapportionment was released on August 12, 2021, about five months later than the usual release.

With the delay in the data release comes increased pressure for states to redraw the maps in time for the 2022 Midterm elections. This has caused uncertainty for incumbents and potential candidates interested in running for office in 2022 as the actual districts they would be running for have not yet been established.

The combination of delayed census data release, varying state processes, need to expedite new maps, and the once-in-a-decade nature of the redistricting process has made the 2021 redrawing of the country’s political maps especially chaotic and thus even more vulnerable to gerrymandering

What can you do to learn more about redistricting?

  • Find out what your state’s redistricting procedures are here.
  • Some states allow for public input into the redistricting process. Find out if you can submit your input in your state here.
  • Vote in every election, especially state and local elections. Your locally elected officials are often the ones who are responsible for drawing the new political lines that will determine what your political representation will look like for the next decade. Sign up for election reminders here to make sure you never miss an election!