How Redistricting Helps Ensure Equal Representation

Striving for 'One Man, One Vote'

Speaker of the House swearing in new members of the US Congress
Speaker of the House Swears in New Members of Congress. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

What is Redistricting?

Redistricting is the process of drawing or changing the geographic boundaries within each state from which the people elect their representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures.

Along with the process of “apportionment” used to determine how many representatives -- thus votes -- each state gets in the House, redistricting is used to ensure the often controversial concept traditionally called "one man, one vote."

One Man, One Vote and Redistricting

The term “one man, one vote” refers to the importance in a democracy of preventing heavily populated urban geographic areas from gaining political power over less populated rural areas based solely on their numbers.

Were New York City, for example, not divided into several congressional districts by redistricting, the vote of a single resident of the city would have more power in Congress than residents in the rest of the state of New York.

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Reynolds v. Sims ruled that state legislatures had to redraw their congressional districts to have roughly equal represented populations in each. In the same decision the court further ruled that the state legislatures themselves should have representation based on districts containing roughly equal populations.

How is the Fairness of Redistricting Ensured?

In an attempt to increase the accuracy and fairness of redistricting, Congress in 1975 passed a law (P.L. 94-171) requiring the U.S. Census Bureau is required to "work closely" with state officials before each decennial census.

In order to implement this law, the Census Bureau works with state and local officials to use the "small-area population" data from the most recent decennial census to redraw Congressional Districts in the fairest way possible.

Under the provisions of the law, the data needed for redistricting are delivered to the majority and minority leaders of each state legislature, as well as to each governor by the Census Bureau.

The state legislatures use the data to redraw their congressional districts, hopefully in ways that ensure fair and equal representation, or “one man, one vote.”

'Gerrymandering' -- Can Redistricting be Fudged?

While the actual effectiveness of this method of district drawing in achieving fair and equal representation is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say the process has, in some cases, been abused and politicized. Strange district boundaries designed especially to give a political party an advantage over its opponents have been allowed in the past in an infamous process known as “gerrymandering.”

Taking a big step toward wiping out the practice, the Supreme Court, in its 1962 Baker v. Carr decision, ruled that claims by victims of gerrymandering made under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution could be heard and decided by the federal courts

Although now illegal, continued attempts to dilute the voting power of minorities through gerrymandering have led some people to favor doing away with the congressional voting district system completely and choosing all members of Congress in "at large" elections.

Since such a change would require the long-hard process of amending the Constitution, the current system of redistricting is likely to remain in place for quite a while.

Why We Should Answer the Census

Clearly, responding honestly to the census, as required by law, is a critical step in ensuring the fairness of our democratic process. A complete and accurate census is our best way of providing every person in America an equal voice in Congress.

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Longley, Robert. "How Redistricting Helps Ensure Equal Representation." ThoughtCo, Mar. 10, 2016, Longley, Robert. (2016, March 10). How Redistricting Helps Ensure Equal Representation. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "How Redistricting Helps Ensure Equal Representation." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).