By Chris Copsey, Legislative Research Director
This last year has seen its fair share of controversial issues come up for discussion including unemployment, immigration, and health care, but there is one issue that only pops up every decade with noticeable consequences, and that issue is redistricting.
Redistricting defined is the redrawing of representational districts for the states. To break it down even further, every 10 years, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the United States Census is taken. Once everyone has been counted, the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives informs each state how many representatives to Congress they will have. If the population of that state increased in the last 10 years, then they may receive additional representatives. If the population went down, however, they could lose representatives. If there is any change in the amount of representatives that a state has, the state’s legislature will redraw the Congressional districts, thus the term redistricting. Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Wrong.
That’s all well and good, but there have been problems. Most notably, is what is called a Gerrymander, or a district that has been purposely manipulated in order to favor the candidate of one particular political party. The phrase is named after Eldbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts in the early 1800’s. When he was running for governor, the Massachusetts legislature redrew the districts to favor the Democratic-Republicans, Gerry’s political party. What that means, is that the political ideology of a majority of the people in the district were drastically slanted towards one party, therefore making the district not very competitive to the opposing party, giving the Democratic-Republicans an edge when it came to elections. Gerrymandering still goes on in modern times, and still creates quite the stir when it happens.
Along with Congressional districts, state legislative districts for the state’s legislature are redrawn every 10 years as well. Much like the Congressional redistricting, the population of each state determines the number of either representatives or senators that will be serving in the capitol. And just like with Congressional districts, the new plan must pass the state legislature. So if the new plan gets rid of some districts, the possibility exists that a legislator might be voting on whether or not they still have a job in the next session!
Each state differs on how they redraw their districts. Some state legislatures draw the lines themselves, while others delegate the task to independent commissions, therefore minimizing the chances of gerrymandering and malapportionment, or unequal proportional representation. However, after the independent commission makes its recommendations for new lines, the legislature still has to vote on it for approval. Checks and balances still apply, and if the governor does not approve the measure, the whole process might have to start over again, as is what happened in Nevada in 2011.
There are however, some interesting elements at play when it comes to redistricting: 9 States (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and parts of Virginia) require the Department of Justice to approve their redistricting plans, as laid out in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This was required to prevent the redistricting from “denying or abridging the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or language group.”1
So there it is- an overview of redistricting that doesn’t leave you feeling gerrymandered. As always, if you the need to have your voice be heard, contact your local representatives (you may find their contact information easily at votesmart.org), and stay active!
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