What Is Redistricting? Definition and Examples

Illustration of the continental United States, showing general locations of key cities, farms, mountains, beaches, and forests.
Illustration of the continental United States, showing general locations of key cities, farms, mountains, beaches, and forests. Mathisworks / Getty Images

Redistricting is the process by which the United States congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn. All members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the state legislatures are elected by people living in the legislative districts. The district boundaries are redrawn every 10 years based on the population counts of the United States census.

Key Takeaways: Redistricting

  • Redistricting is the process by which the boundaries of US congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn.
  • Redistricting is carried out every 10 years based on the population totals reported by the US Census.
  • A law enacted in 1967 requires that only one U.S. representative be elected from each congressional district.
  • Federal law requires that the legislative districts must have nearly equal populations and must not be drawn in any way that discriminates based on race or ethnicity.
  • Redistricting can become controversial when politicians “gerrymander,” or redraw district lines to favor a particular political party, candidate, or ethnic group.

Federal law requires that the legislative districts must have nearly equal populations and must not be drawn in any way that discriminates based on race or ethnicity. Redistricting can become controversial when politicians “gerrymander,” or redraw district lines to influence elections to favor a particular political party, candidate, or ethnic group. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 strongly protects against racial gerrymandering, manipulating district lines to favor political parties remains common.

How Redistricting Works

While each state sets its process for redrawing its U.S. congressional and state legislative districts, those districts must comply with several constitutional and federal statutory standards.

Federal

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution requires that the population of the United States is counted every 10 years. Based on this decennial census population count, the number of each state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives is determined through the process of apportionment. As the geographical distribution of their population shifts, the states are required to redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts every ten years.

Map of California’s 53 US congressional districts.
Map of California’s 53 US congressional districts. Brichuas / Getty Images

In 1967 Congress passed the single-member district law (2 U.S. Code § 2c.) requiring that only one U.S. representative be elected from each congressional district. In the states with small populations allowing for only one U.S. representative—currently Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Delaware—a single state-wide at-large congressional election is held. The District of Columbia currently holds an at-large congressional election to select one non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. In states with only one congressional district, redistricting is not required.

In its 1964 case of Wesberry v. Sanders, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states must strive to ensure that the populations of its U.S. congressional districts be equal “as nearly as practicable.” This requirement is strictly enforced. Any congressional district drawn to include more or fewer people than the state average must be justified by specific state policy. Any such policy that would result in as little as a 1% difference in population from the largest to the smallest district will probably be ruled unconstitutional.

State

The U.S. Constitution does not mention the redistricting of state legislative districts. However, in the 1964 case of Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that similar to U.S. congressional districts, state legislative districts should be comprised of roughly equal populations if possible.

Under Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution—the Supremacy Clause—state legislative redistricting plans must comply with federal civil rights laws and not discriminate based on race, color, or membership in a protected minority group.

Outside of ensuring equal population and complying with federal civil rights laws, the states are free to set their criteria for creating Congressional and state legislative districts. Typically, these criteria may include:

Compactness: the principle that the residents of the district should live as near to one another as possible.

Contiguity: The principle that all areas within a district should be physically contiguous. A district is contiguous if you can travel from any point in the district to any other point in the district without crossing the district’s boundary.

Communities of interest: To the extent possible, district boundaries should not separate people with a common set of concerns that may be affected by legislation. Examples of communities of interest include ethnic, racial, and economic groups.

In a majority of states—currently, 33—the state legislatures are in charge of redistricting. In eight states, the state legislatures, with the approval of the governors, appoint independent commissions to draw district lines. In three states, authority for redistricting is shared by commissions and the state legislatures. The other six states have only one congressional district, making redistricting unnecessary.

Gerrymandering

Almost as old as the nation itself, and used by both political parties, gerrymandering is the act of redrawing legislative district boundaries in a way that favors a particular party or candidate. The goal of gerrymandering is to draw the boundaries of legislative districts so the party’s candidates win as many seats as possible. This is accomplished mainly through two practices commonly called “packing” and “cracking.”

Original cartoon of "The Gerry-Mander,” the political cartoon that led to the coining of the term Gerrymandering.
Original cartoon of "The Gerry-Mander,” the political cartoon that led to the coining of the term Gerrymandering. Boston Centinel, 1812 / Public Domain

Packing is drawing a single district to include as many of the opposing party’s voters as possible. This helps the incumbent party’s candidate win surrounding districts where the opposition party’s strength has been diluted to create the packed district.

The opposite of packing, cracking splits up clusters of opposition voters among several districts, so that they will be outnumbered in each district.

In essence, gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their voters, rather than having voters choose them.

While the Voting Rights Act strongly protects against racial or ethnic gerrymandering, redrawing district lines to favor a political party remains commonplace.

The Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice enforces provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that prohibit redistricting plans from discriminating against voters based on race, color, or membership in a protected language minority group. Both the United States government and private parties may file lawsuits against a redistricting plan alleging that it violates the VRA, including cases in which politically motivated gerrymandering results in racial or ethnic discrimination.

Unfortunately, since the Constitution leaves the manner of conducting elections to the states, individual voters have little power to prevent purely politically motivated gerrymandering. As recently as June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Rucho v. Common Cause, ruled 5-4 that the question of partisan political gerrymandering is not a legal question that the federal courts should decide and must be resolved instead by the elected branches of government.

Effects on Politics

The political impact of redistricting and the potential for partisan political manipulation of legislative district lines—gerrymandering—continues to raise serious concerns about the fairness of America’s electoral process.

Still common, politically gerrymandered congressional districts have been blamed for leaving much-needed legislation to languish in partisan gridlock, disenfranchisement of voters, and growing distrust of government itself.

By creating districts made up of racially, socioeconomically, or politically alike, gerrymandering allows many incumbent House members, who might otherwise be defeated, to remain safe from potential challengers.

For example, a May 2019 report from the independent and nonpartisan policy institute The Center for American Progress, found that unfairly drawn congressional districts shifted the results in an average of 59 House of Representatives races in favor of the incumbent during the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections. In other words, every other November, 59 politicians—both Republicans and Democrats—that would have been voted out of office based on statewide voter support for their party were reelected because the congressional district lines had been unfairly drawn in their favor.

For purposes of perspective, a shift of 59 seats is slightly more than the total number of seats apportioned to the 22 smallest states by population, and six more than America’s most populous state, California, which has 53 House members representing a population of nearly 40 million people.

Sources

  • Thernstrom, Abigail. “Redistricting, Race, and the Voting Rights Act.” National Affairs, 2021, https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/redistricting-race-and-the-voting-rights-act.
  • Mann, Thomas E.; O’Brien, Sean; and Persily, Nate. “Redistricting and the United States Constitution.” Brookings Institute, March 22, 2011, https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/redistricting-and-the-united-states-constitution/.
  • Levitt, Justin. “All About Redistricting.” Loyola Law School, https://redistricting.lls.edu/redistricting-101/.
  • Tausanovitch, Alex. “Voter-Determined Districts: Ending Gerrymandering and Ensuring Fair Representation.” Center for American Progress, May 9, 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2019/05/09/468916/voter-determined-districts/.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Redistricting? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Jul. 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/redistricting-definition-and-examples-5185747. Longley, Robert. (2021, July 26). What Is Redistricting? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/redistricting-definition-and-examples-5185747 Longley, Robert. "What Is Redistricting? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/redistricting-definition-and-examples-5185747 (accessed September 28, 2021).