Redistricting: The New American Horror


You may hear the word redistricting buzzing about in the news. You may be getting emails about it in regards to the census. You may hear the word in connection to or synonymous with the word gerrymandering. But you may not really know what it means or the consequences it may have on your life. So let’s unpack this new phenomenon which has been around forever.  

What is redistricting? 

“Redistricting is the regular process of adjusting the lines of voting districts in accordance with population shifts. For many states, this means redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines every ten years following the decennial census. In the modern era of redistricting, all district lines must be reviewed after the census to meet strict requirements for population equality and voting rights protections.”

There we go. That explains it. Or does it? It does not seem very kosher to me. Voting rights protections seem to be waning these days. Drinking water while waiting to vote is an issue. So it seems. 

But there are other words that go along with redistricting that may be confused or used synonymously and those are reapportionment and gerrymandering. What are the differences?   

What is reapportionment?

“Reapportionment is the process of reassigning congressional seats among the states after the Census. Once Census 2010 population counts were released, the number of representatives each state could send to Congress was determined. At that point, reapportionment was over and redistricting had begun! All states, even those that did not gain or lose districts, still must redraw district boundaries in order to match internal population shifts. The end goal? Equal numbers of people in every district, nationwide.”

What is gerrymandering?

“Gerrymandering is the act of redrawing district lines to influence elections to favor a particular party, candidate, ethnic group. While the Voting Rights Act strongly protects against racial gerrymanders, manipulating the lines to favor a political party is common. In other cases, the parties work together to draw a plan that favors the incumbents of both parties.”

Okay, so if you are as confused as me and something smells fishy and the fishy is f-ing with democracy then let’s see if we can unpack what is going on. 

Redistricting is dependent on the census; we just had one: the 2021 census. 

“With the 2021 Census behind us, redistricting season is officially in full swing. In the coming months, we can expect new district maps to be enacted at all levels of government, including everything from congressional districts to city council districts to local water board districts.” 

So where does gerrymandering fit in? This is the tricky (and I mean tricky) part. Gerrymandering is all about manipulation – redrawing the district lines to suit political needs: gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating district lines to give one party or racial group an advantage over the other.” 

That party and or political group are white Republicans. Sorry, I’m not paranoid – that is what is happening. For a party that still thinks Joe Biden is not president do you really think they will play fair with drawing inside the lines fairly? They want the districts to look  like “Chiclets” and not “M&Ms”.

I will use California as an example of redistricting since I live here and this mag is published here. But this is happening all over the country. Of course the Bluer the state the more red crayons will be needed. 

“Every ten years, district maps are redrawn based on federal census data to adjust for population changes. The central value guiding this process is to make sure that each of our voices is fairly represented in our local, state, and federal governments by creating districts with the same number of people in them.” 

“This seemingly straightforward process can be manipulated by the ruling political party or incumbents, who are often given the power to redraw their own district lines in most states and local jurisdictions. As you can imagine, the potential for conflicts of interest is high, and a process that should be focused on fair representation can devolve into an attempt to cement the power of the ruling party or incumbents through gerrymandering.” 

“Redistricting determines whether our communities are kept together in electoral districts, enabling them to be heard in local affairs and to elect candidates who fight for their needs, or if they are gerrymandered into many different districts, diluting their voting power and their voice. The process will determine how well community interests are represented in government, including communities of color, low-income communities, and other communities with shared interests, views, languages, and histories.”

“Redistricting ultimately determines how responsive elected officials are to community needs and which communities have the opportunity to sit in the halls of power, making critical decisions about water, transportation, criminal justice, schools, and other issues that affect our daily lives.” 

California has taken steps to protect the electoral process and put an end to gerrymandering. 

“In 2008, California approved the Voters FIRST Act, a measure that created an independent commission of California residents with balanced partisan representation (five Republicans, five Democrats, four others). The California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) was given the power to redistrict for California’s State Assembly, State Senate, Congressional districts, and Board of Equalization districts, moving that power from the state legislature’s hands into the hands of community members.” 

“Huge strides have also been made on the local level to end the gerrymandering of county supervisorial districts and city council districts. A record number of cities and counties are using independent commissions, similar to the state commission, allowing community members to lead the redistricting process with minimal interference from incumbents. Many of our largest cities and counties are using this model, including Long Beach, Los Angeles County, Santa Barbara County, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Diego (both the city and county).” 

“Further, the Fair Maps Act, which was passed in 2019 and cosponsored by California Common Cause, changed the landscape for local redistricting by outlawing partisan gerrymandering, establishing ranked redistricting criteria that prioritizes communities, and requiring cities and counties to hold at least four public redistricting hearings to solicit community input before adopting their final maps.”

But what about other parts of the country that aren’t as open minded to the idea of balanced communities and giving all people an equal voice? What happens in states where the lines are drawn so tightly that people are squeezed right out of the electoral process altogether? Why does this happen anyway? When did it start? The term gerrymandering “dates back to 1812”. 

“The term dates to 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a redistricting plan that included a district many thought looked like a salamander, leading opponents to nickname the district after him.” 

“But while the term has become a synonym for redistricting abuses, it actually covers a wide variety of sins, not all of which are related.”

“For example, one form of gerrymandering involves drawing districts in order to protect incumbents. Likewise, sometimes districts are drawn to ensure a favored candidate can successfully run for office. These types of gerrymanders – which often occur through bipartisan collusion between political parties – can be harmful to democracy by pre-determining outcomes and depriving voters of a meaningful choice at the polls.”

“But the partisan gerrymandering cases currently in front of the Supreme Court – Rucho v. Common Cause, Rucho v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina, and Lamone v. Benisek – involve another variant of political gerrymandering that is even more pernicious.”

“In the type of extreme partisan gerrymandering being challenged in North Carolina and Maryland, a political party uses its control of the process to artfully craft maps that lock in an outsized share of seats for an entire decade. The lasting and harmful effects of extreme partisan gerrymandering are especially apparent in traditionally purple states, like North Carolina. At a statewide level, North Carolina is a robust democracy with highly contested elections for everything from president to state auditor. But over the last decade, Republicans secured supermajorities in the state legislature, as well as a safe, durable 10-3 advantage in the congressional delegation.”

What is happening in our country now is “extreme gerrymandering”: maps that are so unrepresentative of what the country looks like. 

“John Adams famously wrote in 1788 that the House of Representatives – and by extension state legislatures – should be a “exact portrait” and “miniature” of the people as a whole. That doesn’t happen when district boundaries are manipulated in this way.”

But how does it happen? 

Is it really like taking a crayon and drawing (or redrawing) weird shapes around congressional districts to make sure certain (minority) neighborhoods are excluded and then dumped into other districts that may have more of a preferred majority in that weird shape so that the minority vote really does not count? 

Yes!!! That is exactly how in my limited layperson understanding it happens. 

“Racial gerrymandering can mean the dilution of the voting power of certain racial or demographic groups, which is usually entangled with seeking partisan advantage. And a bipartisan gerrymander is a redistricting meant to protect incumbents of both parties.”

Both parties can do it but it seems like one party makes a career of it. I’m not saying who…..but….I see red……

“At some point or another over the last decade, Democrats have won the most votes but lost national elections for the presidency, the House and the Senate.”

“It’s even possible to imagine a future in which Republicans could effectively claim a monopoly on federal power despite continued weakness in the national vote.”

“Over the last few decades, American politics has become increasingly polarized along geographic lines. Cities now overwhelmingly back Democrats; the countryside increasingly backs Republicans, though by less lopsided margins. This kind of polarization strains representative democracies with winner-take-all voting systems, since even modest alternations in district or state lines can produce very different results.”

“But even more consequential shifts can result from the intentional manipulation of district lines for partisan gain.”

“Either party can benefit from partisan gerrymandering. But Republicans generally have an easier time of it than Democrats, who waste millions of votes by winning lopsided margins in urban districts that pad their popular vote tallies without yielding additional seats. The G.O.P., in contrast, wastes fewer votes in the countryside, where Republicans generally win by smaller margins.”

So what does this mean for 2021 and control of Congress? 

“The once-a-decade process of redrawing electoral maps can determine which party controls Congress. Though Democrats hold power in Washington, Republicans have the redistricting advantage heading into 2021.”

“Because the number of U.S. House of Representatives seats allocated to each state is driven largely by population, some states whose population declined will likely lose seats to others that have seen growth. This year, Texas and Florida are among the states expected to gain seats, while New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania are among those that will likely lose seats.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal judges have no jurisdiction over partisan gerrymandering, though the decision does not prevent state courts from weighing in. Both the Pennsylvania and North Carolina state Supreme Courts have found extreme partisan gerrymandering violates their state constitutions.”

“In general, the most aggressive current gerrymanders are seen in Republican-controlled states, thanks to the party’s massive victories in state-level elections in 2010. That has allowed Republicans in Wisconsin, for example, to maintain an iron grip on the legislature, even as Democrats have won statewide races.”

“After Democrats failed to make major gains in November at the statehouse level, Republicans will have sole power to draw the lines for 181 seats in the 435-seat U.S. House, compared with only 49 for Democrats, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center at New York University.”

“Some experts say Republicans could use redistricting alone to flip the half-dozen House seats needed to regain control of the chamber from Democrats in the 2022 congressional elections.”

Covid-19 is adding to the problem. 

“The biggest immediate concern is a months-long delay in the release of census data due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, officials said states would not receive detailed figures until September.”

“As a result, the two states that hold legislative elections in 2021, Virginia and New Jersey, will use their old maps. Meanwhile, around half of U.S. states have legal deadlines calling for new maps to be completed in 2021, which could be impossible given the delay; experts say many states will likely ask courts for extensions.”

“Some good government groups are worried the delay could lead to more extreme gerrymandering, since it would leave little time for any legal challenges to make their way through the courts before the 2022 elections in November.”

Another problem is the Supreme Court. 

“The Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to eliminate a key section of the Voting Rights Act will also make it more difficult for civil rights groups to prevent gerrymandering. In years past, states with a history of racial discrimination in elections were required to get “preclearance” from the federal government before making any changes to voting laws, but the court struck down that provision.”

What states have the most to gain? 

“The biggest fights could emerge in four populous Southern states where Republican control over redistricting could yield big gains in Congress – Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.”

“Texas and Florida could pick up a combined five new seats in the U.S. Congress thanks to population growth, while Republicans in Georgia may pursue an aggressive gerrymander in response to surprise statewide wins for Democrats in the presidential and twin Senate runoff elections.”

“A number of battleground states where Republicans previously enjoyed strong gerrymanders now have Democratic governors or independent commissions, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.”

So, is there anything a voter can do to help fight these unfair practices? Yes! Get involved. Vote and get involved and stay informed. Here are some tips for staying in the loop:

Learn how redistricting works

Learn about the policies that make redistricting more fair

Work with advocates to push for democracy reform in your state

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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