Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Back before the midterm elections, we took a look at a high-stakes issue that generated little attention on the campaign trail: redistricting at state legislative districts in New York. The same goes for U.S. Congressional districts, which legislators will get to redraw next year. If Senator Chuck Schumer's comments are any indication, that redistricting will remain partisan and it will be business as usual.
Congressional redistricting is a very unsexy process. In essence, it amounts to a specially selected group of people meeting behind closed doors to crunch numbers and draw imaginary lines on a map. In practice, it determines the shape, size, and DNA of a district, which in turn informs who will be elected to represent that population in state and national legislatures. Which in turn informs our laws, our policies, and our political and cultural climate.
In 2011, newly-elected Republicans in Congress, state legislatures, and governors' mansions will enjoy the power of steering this process. Democrats lost control of 19 state legislatures in this year's midterm elections. Of the 99 legislative chambers in the country—49 states have some form of both an assembly and a senate, while Nebraska has a unicameral legislature—55 will be red, and only 38 will be blue. Republicans hadn't seen a victory of that magnitude since 1994, and they haven't held this many legislatures since 1928.
GOP majorities in state legislatures will make it easier for Republicans to approve redistricting plans that are favorable to their party. Their gubernatorial overseers, also Republican in 29 states, will be less likely to veto those proposals. It will likely help the Republican party retain the offices they've got and gain some they don't. It will also play a part in deciding who gets to lead the discussion on government policy at local, state, and federal levels.
I promise, it’s important.
And whenever something is both very boring and very important, people tend to not pay too much attention. Redistricting is no different. Indeed, polling in recent years has shown that a whopping 70 percent of Americans don’t have an opinion about it. But it does have a sexy side.
First, some context. Every decade the federal government conducts a census to count the national population. It compiles demographic data like gender, age and race along the way. States use this information to redraw congressional and state legislative districts, creating boundaries that house roughly equal numbers of people. This ensures that the representative from District X is speaking (and casting votes) for the same number of people as the representative from District Y.
Depending on whether a state's population has increased or declined since the previous census, the number of seats allotted to that state in the House of Representatives may go up or down accordingly. The more people you have living in a state, the more districts you can draw. That's why a small state like Massachusetts has 10 Congressional districts (population 7 million), while a big state like Wyoming only has one (pop. 600,000). Originally, the U.S. Constitution prescribed 33,000 people as the appropriate size for a district. But as the landmass and population of the United States grew, and the House of Representatives ballooned, districts that small became unsustainable. In 2010, with 33,000-person districts, we would have almost 10,000 seats in the House—way too many politicians.
In 1911, when the House reached 435 members, a cap was set arbitrarily—from that point on, the U.S. would have 435 districts to be reapportioned with each census; none could be added or taken away, only redrawn. Nowadays, each Representative speaks for about 700,000 people, and after each census, districts are drawn with this ballpark population figure in mind.
But it's not just about putting the same number of people in each district. In an ideal world, districts would be drawn to group people with similar social, economic, and industrial interests. A community comprised mainly of middle-class farmers would get the opportunity to elect a representative familiar with, and dedicated to, their issues. At the very least, well-drawn district lines would make sense on a map, grouping people who simply live close together.
Usually, Congressional districts are drawn for political purposes, with basic determining factors like geography taking a backseat to party affiliation. This is called gerrymandering. Both parties do it. And they’ve been doing it since 1812.
Gerrymandering is one of the reasons we wind up with Abraham Lincoln riding a vacuum cleaner in New York, or this gem of an inkblot from Texas. Districts that look like chewed food reflect attempts by both parties to lump their constituents into wieldy blobs in time for the next election. The goal is to fill important districts with a strategic number of voters from your party. For instance, you might have one district that’s a lock for Democrats, while a neighboring district is contested more consistently. So Democrats in power during redistricting may draw some voters from the “sure thing” district into the battleground district to shore up numbers. They might also lump all of the opposition support into as few districts as possible, packing Republican votes into districts the GOP already expects to win.
Ultimately, little mind is paid to whether these communities, populations, and square miles really make sense as a district.
The drawing gets downright ludicrous sometimes. In some exceptional cases, the party in power during redistricting will go so far as to draw an opposition incumbent’s house (and his house alone!) out of the district he represents, forcing him to retire or run against a fellow-party incumbent in their new district.
The confusion doesn’t stop there. Perhaps more convoluted than the act of redistricting are the rules and standards that govern it—there are none and too many at the same time. Each state decides for itself who gets to draw the lines, a privilege usually enumerated in the state constitution. The variations are enough to make your head spin. In New Hampshire, 424 legislators make up the state's redistricting body. In Arkansas, it's just three executive officials.
Most states put the legislature (read: the majority party) in charge of redrawing districts. In this case, state legislators introduce legislation defining the boundaries of their own districts and those of their Congressional representatives. That legislation still has to pass and survive the governor's veto power before it can take effect.
Some states have the legislature appoint an independent advisory commission to recommend district plans to the legislature. The size and composition of these commissions vary from state to state, but it's usually a mix of legislators, public officials, professional staff, and private citizens. In states that use these commissions, legislators won't literally draw districts, but they will have the power to choose who does, and sometimes to accept or reject their recommendations in the state legislature.
There are other states where the state legislature isn't involved at all, and the consensus of the appointed commission or another elected official's approval is enough for a plan to pass. And in Texas and Oregon, partisan elected officials like the governor and the attorney general are the commission. When a state legislature becomes deadlocked on a district plan, these officials will step in and draw one of their own.
So, from state to state, it's a totally different game. Almost completely absent are regulations from the federal government. There is no national requirement for how districts should be drawn, and the only prescription for the redistricting schedule is that it happen at least every census. Some states will even redistrict in between the ten-year counts. The U.S. Congress has the power to "make or alter" those districts once they've been drawn by state legislatures, but that's a muscle that the legislative branch has yet to flex. Otherwise, states basically have free reign to conduct the process however they see fit.
The exception to this rule usually involves the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. The VRA included a provision that redistricting plans can be ruled unconstitutional by the Department of Justice or a U.S. District Court, since the way a district is drawn can discriminate against minorities, diluting or splitting their votes with the same gerrymandering tactics already described. But districts could be drawn to minorities' benefit, too. Following an amendment to the VRA in 1982, states were required to do some "affirmative gerrymandering," drawing certain districts such that minority citizens were the majority of the population. These minority-majority districts were meant to consolidate the voting power of ethnic and racial minorities and increase their numbers in government—a step toward rectifying centuries of discrimination and unequal representation.
However, drawing these districts based on racial data alone was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1990s. Minority-majority districts are still a part of the redistricting palette, but they are the subject of close scrutiny by courts.
Of course, partisan or political gerrymandering is still allowed almost without exception. That privilege has been upheld by the Supreme Court, which decided in a 2004 case that, lacking "comprehensive and neutral principles for drawing electoral boundaries," we can't call any redistricting "unfair" for certain, so long as racial data isn't the defining factor.
When everything about redistricting is so complicated and decentralized, it's easy to see how politicians game the system without raising alarms. That's not to say that nobody's tried to come up with a "fair" way to do it, or that we'll never have a perfect system. But redistricting reform legislation has an abysmal survival rate in Congress, and until any new rules are agreed upon, it will be up to the politicians we put in office to handle this responsibility…well, responsibly.
After all, it's the power of your vote that's being decided. Something to keep in mind next election day.