Redistricting: What it means and why it matters
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Every ten years, the United States undergoes a process called redistricting. Each state is divided into pieces called state legislative or congressional districts in an attempt to provide each district’s voters with fair representation in the state’s legislative body. During redistricting, these districts are redrawn according to the data collected from the US Census.
Seems simple enough. So what’s all the fuss about? At Progressive Turnout Project, we know how important (and how difficult) it can be to understand how all the moving parts of the political process work, so we interviewed Jason, our Western Legislative Political Coordinator, to give you the scoop on what redistricting is, why it matters, and how you can get involved.
Why is redistricting important? How does it affect the political process?
Redistricting only occurs once every ten years, and yet it could be said that it is the heart and soul of democracy. It ensures that the people participating in public life and civic engagement have their voices heard at every level of government. It is the lifeblood of civic engagement, of knowing that your voice is not only being heard, but your priorities are accurately being represented at the state, federal, and municipal levels.
During redistricting, every state receives an allotment from the 435 U.S. House seats while the districts within their state are redrawn based on the changes in population over the last decade or so. This is often a very contentious process.
There are even states that still don’t have maps. In Ohio, the maps have been kicked back from the courts so often that voters are facing a primary where the candidates do not yet have districts to run in.
A lot of the struggle of creating these maps is that they are often built to look fair when in reality, they can restrict and limit the voice of voters based on the representation they have, generally further alienating historically underrepresented groups and those groups that are historically oppressed and suppressed from voting. Put another way: Newly formed state legislative districts, at the granular level, are not always as competitive as they appear.
An example of that is in New Mexico and Arizona, specifically where there are Native American voters who generally support Democrats. Those legislative maps have included large swaths of tribal land in very red districts to make them appear purple and very competitive. Historically, Native voters have been excluded from the political process — their voices on issues in both Congress and state legislatures are limited due to gerrymandering, barriers they face when voting, and historical continued systematic oppression.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (which, unlike Section 5’s preclearance provision, is still in place) protects communities of color from “vote dilution.” The idea is that, if a particular minority group is large enough, they should have a district where they form a majority and can exercise their collective electoral power. Of course, that doesn’t happen on its own — the guardrails of democracy are only as good as their enforcement.
Who’s in charge of redistricting?
The process is very different by state. In some states, there is a commission that is appointed by the legislature that then makes recommendations. In other states, the commission is comprised of citizens and/or legal actors. In some states, it is the legislature itself that creates the maps.
I personally really like the New Mexico structure, which includes a commission comprised of one member appointed by each legislative leader, two who are not registered with either major party and appointed by the state ethics commission, and one retired state judge or justice, serving as the chair and appointed by the state ethics commission. Once the commission creates its maps, they are then sent to the legislature to be voted on. And after passage in the legislature, it is then subject to the governor’s final approval or veto. Between the Ethics Commission, the legislature, and the governor, there is a checks and balances system built into the process even before it faces the legislature’s scrutiny.
There’s been talk of a more fair map this year, is there any truth to that?
Fairness is relative. Is it a fair map? That’s up to each state or in some cases, a judge. I would say that due to legal maneuvers, and Independent Redistricting Commissions, the Democrats have fared better than expected, considering the Trump administration’s execution of the census. There were reports that came out recently and noted that Black and Brown individuals were under-counted in the census. That has been a long-standing problem not unique to the Trump administration, but it has repercussions for the redistricting process. It really is up to the state legislatures to account for that, and draw a map that represents voices that weren’t fully counted and accurately reflects the composition of the state. Is the map fair? I would say that Democrats have a lot to look forward to.
We also hear a lot about gerrymandering. What’s that and why does it happen?
Gerrymandering is as American as apple pie. Gerrymandering is a process in which elected officials pick their voters as opposed to voters picking their elected officials. It’s a process that often reflects more behind-closed-doors politics than public service and accurate representation.
That being said, both sides do engage in it to some extent, but for different reasons. For example, to undo three decades worth of Republican partisan gerrymandering, Democrats in the Pennsylvania legislature are poised to level the playing field for accurate representation. These new maps now reflect a more accurate representation of Pennsylvania itself.
Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats are pushing for a nationwide ban on partisan redistricting in the Freedom to Vote Act, which Republicans are blocking in the Senate.
What steps can voters take to make sure they’re being properly represented?
Contact your current elected official. Look at the Secretary of State’s website, and make sure that you know where your voting location is. Are you still registered to vote? Are your districts still the same? Do you know who your local state representatives are? It takes an extra level of engagement on the part of the voter, but, to put it indelicately, if you don’t vote, you surrender your right to complain about the state of things. The more you pay attention, the more you are engaged, the more you are familiar with how and why things are the way they are.
Every election comes down to whether or not Democrats turn out. This is the key. I’ve been on campaigns where there were nine people running for three seats, and 400 votes separated second, third, and fourth place. Being an informed voter is a really important piece of the democratic process. We owe it to our neighbors, we owe it to each other, we owe it to the future of lawmaking to be engaged. Exercising the privilege of saying “I’m not political” further disenfranchises people whose voices are being suppressed. Turn out to vote. That’s how we effect change.