Redistricting can make or break whether either party gains a majority in Congress. But partisan gerrymandering is making it harder for Democrats to engineer sure paths to victory.
The Supreme Court has endorsed using districts that consider “communities of interest.” This includes voters in the same place or with similar interests, such as people with disabilities.
Disparities in Voter Turnout
When a district’s lines are drawn after the census, they should reflect the political views of the state’s residents. However, redistricting has been abused to tilt elections and discriminate against communities of color. The Supreme Court’s decision to gut critical protections against racial discrimination in voting rights laws has made it easier for states to draw districts with unfair demographics. The result is that legislators are elected who would not have been able to win on the ballot based on their statewide support. On average, unfairly drawn districts shift 59 seats every other November.
The disparities in voter turnout are profound. For example, in 2016, White citizens voted 14 percentage points higher than Black citizens and 25 points higher than Asians; women voted at a greater rate than men; and Republicans voted at a greater rate than Democrats.
The distance from voters’ homes to their polling places is a significant factor in this gap. One study estimates that increasing the distance to the polls by a quarter mile decreases turnout by 2 to 5 percent.
Voters of Color
As the country becomes increasingly diverse, it’s important to have maps that reflect that reality at the ballot box. Unfortunately, partisan control of redistricting in dozens of states allows lawmakers to protect their incumbents at the expense of creating competitive districts.
Drawing electoral district lines only happens once every decade, but it is a significant factor in whether voters have access to their fair share of political power. In most states, politicians gather behind computer screens to determine how they can manipulate the lines to maximize their party’s strength and limit their competition, a practice known as gerrymandering.
For example, they strive to ensure that the public is informed about the redistricting process and how they can get involved before the post-2020 redistricting examples. In addition, we are arguing a case of jail gerrymandering, which results in underrepresentation.
Fortunately, there are now a handful of states with independent redistricting commissions (IRC) that provide checks on the most blatant forms of gerrymandering. Those commissions screen applicants to ensure they are neutral and impartial and have strict conflict-of-interest rules that prevent them from being too close to the political process or elected officials. They also draw and approve maps that are subject to gubernatorial vetoes. These reforms can help combat racial gerrymandering and provide all our residents with a more level playing field.
Voters in Rural Areas
In most states, elected officials draw the electoral districts that determine who gets to vote for their local city council or school board and where they are represented in Congress and state legislatures. While some elected officials may have voters’ best interests in mind, others are more concerned with getting re-elected or keeping their party in power, resulting in maps that dilute people’s voting power. This practice, political gerrymandering, is illegal and has been widely condemned by federal courts.
Thankfully, some states prioritize fair representation and use independent redistricting to create new district boundaries. Currently, 28 states redistrict at the congressional level by having state legislatures draw and pass new district maps as regular legislation. Another seven states use an extra legislative commission, four have a political appointee panel, and three have a hybrid model. However, even with these reforms, partisan politics can still impact the elections. Voters deserve to have their voices heard and elected representatives that reflect them.
Voters in Urban Areas
Redistricting creates districts that determine where your city councilperson, school board member, and state representatives are elected and how many votes your state gets in the Electoral College. District boundaries are redrawn after each census and significantly impact electoral outcomes.
Unfortunately, elected officials often manipulate the process to ensure they get re-elected, or their party retains control of the legislature. This practice is known as gerrymandering, and it is unfair to voters and communities.
States have a variety of ways to approach redistricting. Most rely on legislative committees to draw district maps; seven use an advisory commission, and four have independent redistricting processes.
In 2014, redistricting reforms created an independent commission, but how it works needs to be revised. In particular, it fails to incorporate a substantial conflict of interest and vetting process for applicants. Drawing district lines also need to consider how incarceration counts as part of the population. This leaves the commission vulnerable to political manipulation and unable to produce fair and competitive districts.
Voters in Small Towns
Redistricting occurs every decade to ensure that elected officials represent equal numbers of people in their districts. District boundaries are drawn based on data from the decennial census, which determines the number of electoral votes each state receives in the Electoral College. Districts for state and congressional representatives, as well as for city councils, school boards, and county commissioner courts, must be redrawn.
Historically, elected officials have had sole responsibility for drawing these lines. This allowed them to protect incumbents and secure partisan advantages for their party, even if the district would not favor them. This practice is known as gerrymandering.
Many states have moved away from this practice, establishing independent commissions or incorporating clear criteria for the process into state constitutions. However, some legislators still seek to draw district maps that give themselves an advantage. The result is that voters across the country have fewer competitive districts. This has implications for how the elections play out this fall.